What is it about the idea of mental illness that makes so many people afraid of those who have a mental illness? I’ve never been quite sure. There are some cases where I can kind of understand it – a cannibalistic psychopath would scare the crap out of me, frankly. But I can’t recall ever being afraid of someone with mental illness just because of that. And right now, it seems like there are more than a few people who are scared of people like me just because of something I have no control over.

Elliot Rodger, the shooter from the recent killings in Isla Vista, California, was a violent, privileged misogynist, who seemed to hate basically everyone around him because they didn’t immediately give him everything he ever wanted. He also, apparently, had some kind of mental illness, though I haven’t seen anything saying exactly what it might be. And despite being a violent misogynist, it seems that a lot of people are focusing on the fact that he had a mental illness as a reason for why things went so wrong. At work on Tuesday, I heard a customer telling her friend that she wondered why, after ‘all these crazy people shootings’, that people with mental illnesses weren’t just locked up. Since I wanted to keep my job, I didn’t get to do what I really wanted to (which might have been proving her point, I grant), but instead had to smile and thank her for coming.

As I would imagine most readers here know (and, if you don’t, then this will be a shock, but come on, you’ve been missing the obvious), I have a mental illness. I’ve had major clinical depression for 14 years now. In that time, I have tried to commit suicide twice, but I have never tried to inflict any kind of criminal harm on anyone else. And, at 34 – 12 years older than Elliot Rodger – I have neither had a girlfriend nor had sex. I’m not a violent criminal, and I don’t hate women. In fact, despite my occasional claims of misanthropy, I don’t hate the majority of people. So, what about my having a mental illness is so scary to people like the customer on Tuesday?

Hell, after the time I have spent around other people with mental illnesses – people with anxiety disorder, depression, bipolar, schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder borderline personality disorder, psychosis, narcissistic personality disorder, Asperger’s, ADD, mood disorder, and even one with intermittent explosive disorder – the only one I was even a little worried to be around was the guy with intermittent explosive disorder, and that’s only because the staff at the acute care facility seemed to have a talent for setting him off. Well, I was also worried to be around my quintuple-felon roommate, but that was more because of the felonies than whatever his mental problems were. I’ve met some people with mental illnesses who really bugged me, but then I’ve also met plenty of people without mental illnesses who bug me.

So what is so scary about mental illness? Is it that there’s really nothing physical to see – that the illness is literally all in one’s head? Is it that it is something that can strike with little to no warning, and there are any number of treatments for these illnesses – but none of them are guaranteed to work? If it’s that, then all the people scared of mental illness should be terrified of cancer patients, as well.  I just don’t understand. What about my having a mental illness is worthy of making others scared of me just by virtue of my depression? Why aren’t we more scared of people who, I don’t know, are violent misogynists (as Laci Green explains so well)? What can I do to show people that my mental illness – indeed, most mental illnesses – aren’t things to be afraid of?

I am not a monster. I am just a man.


8 comments on “Fear

  1. Andy Montgomery says:

    I think the fear comes from the perception that mentally ill people are unpredictable. But of course that perception just comes from a lack of understanding–I’ve found that most people with psychological problems have a small set of incorrect things that they are absolutely convinced are true. If you know what those false beliefs are, my experience has been that the mentally ill are much more rational and predictable than so-called sane people. That’s because those falsehoods almost always originate as defense mechanisms against some recurring trauma, so it feels like a vital survival skill to never forget the lessons you’ve learned. Mentally healthy people, by definition, have never had any principles–true or false–that deeply ingrained in them by repeated experience. They’re far freer to deviate from their usual habits than the mentally ill.

    For example, I’ve had it beaten into me that telling another human being what I want or need from them will at best be completely ineffectual, and at worst will trigger an escalating torrent of anger and resentment far worse than any worst case scenario I could have imagined beforehand. Most of the things I do that seem abnormal actually make perfect sense if you know that about me. Why have I put up with a long succession of deeply one-sided relationships (romantic and platonic)? Because I can’t ask for more. Why do I do skilled labor for minimum wage? Because I can’t ask for a raise. Why don’t I ask that girl out, what’s the worst that could happen, that she laughs at me? Well, actually, that’s the best that’s ever happened. The worst involves hallucinations caused (probably) by an antidepressant medication that was later discredited and has been the subject of class-action lawsuits. Why don’t I like to talk on the phone? Because I can’t watch for body-language clues that I’m encroaching on dangerous topics. Why do I do most of my shopping online? Because if something rings up at the wrong price, I can just click “remove from cart” instead of asking someone to fix it. The core principle behind all that is clearly insane, but my seemingly irrational behavior is a perfectly rational response to the belief that it’s true. The unpredictability comes entirely from not having all the information. But the stereotype of mental illness is the opposite–that it is inherently incomprehensible and causes genuinely random behavior.

    • Well, it may also be that the diversity of mental illnesses makes people exaggerate their unpredictability. Within a certain range, knowing about depression, I can generally guess at or identify to actions of a depressed person – but I am totally out of luck when it comes to a schizophrenic. I had to take a 12-week class, and read a book or two, to have any idea about what to possibly expect from someone with Borderline Personality Disorder, and even that is just educated guessing. But not knowing how someone is going to react to something doesn’t make them dangerous; if it did, we’d just nuke everywhere else, just to be sure.

      • Andy Montgomery says:

        That’s an excellent point. I know I’m a lot more comfortable with depressives, narcissists, and people with social anxiety/phobia than other mental illnesses. And by a staggering coincidence, those are the ones I know the most about and have the most experience dealing with. Those are the people I find least unpredictable.

  2. Janice F. says:

    I think in part it’s a desire to dehumanize the Other, to separate from things that frighten us, and to say that we couldn’t possibly be like that person because _____. A friend’s teenage daughter died recently and the first thing I – and everyone else I know – wondered was what happened? Not because we needed to know but because we wanted to be able to tell ourselves it wouldn’t happen to us, to our children.

    As you say, dude’s main problem was that he was a violent, entitled asshole, which is totally separate from any mental illness.

    • See, I’d want to know because that would affect how I would react to the parents. knowing it was a suicide would elicit a different reaction than a car crash – I’d still be sympathetic, or empathetic, either way, but my approaches would change.

      But then, when I am afraid of something, I research it to find out more, as that knowledge often helps to assuage my fears. I’m afraid of sharks, but I won’t avoid going into water because of it because I know that shark attacks are really infrequent, often not fatal, and tend to occur only in a small subset of people in the water. Spiders still scare the crap out of me, though – what do they do with all those legs? Ick.

  3. Laurel says:

    2 thoughts:
    A. It bothers me yet not a shocking that you feel you can’t ask what you need. Honestly- I don’t do perfect at that and I make up that m

  4. Laurel says:

    I make up that most people can’t/don’t either at times. But for a number of reasons me personally can’t get thru life not being able to do that or I’d drive myself bonkers more than I already do
    It’s hard but not impossible.
    2) as you know I watch these dating specials and I’ll spare you details but victim to my shock given what she had to go thru- she said he’s not a monster- what he did was pretty monstrous . Buff said

  5. Laurel says:

    This is bugging me and I’m half awake- and Jaime knows this but I don’t watch Dating specials if there is such thing. Lolololol- do even know what that means. I watch like DATELIne and 48 hrs. Sorry that was bugging me:)

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