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When People With Mental Illness Are Made the Dangerous 'Other'

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I’ve been feeling a little anxious and grouchy the past couple of days, and as I tried to sit with those feelings and forge my way through the week, I think I’ve finally realized why: I’m actually scared.

 Over the past few months, several events have come to my attention, one after another, that have individually affected me in degrees ranging from a slap in the face to the weight of an unstoppable avalanche pouring down on top of me, pressing me helplessly and fearfully into the ground.

First: Halloween. My attitude toward this holiday is pretty mellow; I’m not a big fan of dressing up, but I get that other people love it. That’s fine. Live and let live. But before Halloween night, a friend told me about an article reporting that Walmart was selling “Razor Blade Suicide Scar Wound” makeup for Halloween. I felt a pit form in my stomach. Do people think suicide is funny? Or scary? Or, worse yet, both?

Despite my own battle with depression, I recovered well enough from that unpleasant shock — only to learn the following day that a large costume supplier is selling an “Adult Skitzo” costume that depicts a person (supposedly, I assume from the gag-inducing spelling of the name, meant to have schizophrenia) clad in an orange jumpsuit replete with chains, handcuffs and a Hannibal Lecter-style mask. The pit in my stomach throbbed and grew as waves of nausea passed over me. Does everyone think people with mental illness are dangerous? Are we all criminals-in-waiting, deserving only of a hideous costume designed to make us look unhinged and in need of locking up for the good of society?

Is this who I am to the world?

Obviously, I know it’s not who I am. But both costumes perpetuate the idea that people who live with depression, self-harm, suicidal thoughts or schizophrenia are scary — scary enough to imitate on a holiday all about celebrating the horrible, the terrible, the most frightening parts of our psyches and society. The existence of costumes like these turn mental illness into a spectator sport and manage to place those of us who live with mental illness  into the terrifying “other” that Halloween is all about.

I try to be neither too easily offended by, nor insensitive to, costumes that perpetuate stereotypes; but in this case, my reaction was immediate and visceral. As my husband pointed out, how many people did these costume ideas have to get through to be planned for, made and marketed? How many people looked at them and thought, sure, these look good, let’s make a few hundred of them and see how they sell. Seriously? How many?

But lest you think the othering of those with mental illness is confined to the boundaries of the imagination and the world of make-believe, I’ll tell you the other part of this, the part that’s making me write furiously, with shaking hands, now.

I learned that on October 18, New York City police shot and killed a 66-year-old black woman with a mental illness named Deborah Danner, after being called by a neighbor who reported that Danner was acting irrationally. Danner, who had schizophrenia, was in the middle of a mental health crisis. When she waved a baseball bat, an officer shot her twice in the torso, killing her. He didn’t wait for Emergency Services to arrive or attempt to use his Taser instead.

And Monday night, scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed, I saw yet another headline that took my breath away. A 23-year-old, pregnant, Native American woman named Renee Davis was experiencing severe depression and suicidal ideation. On October 21, her sister called the local police to report that Davis was suicidal and to ask for a wellness check. Rather than helping her put down the handgun with which she was armed and getting her the help she needed, police shot and killed her.

Writing about these women makes me feel physically ill. My heart is pounding. I feel like a cat is swatting at the butterflies in my stomach. What if my illness gets to a point, someday, that I need urgent help? What if the wrong person — someone who fails to recognize my illness, my state of crisis — comes to my aid? Could my story turn out like Deborah Danner’s or Renee Davis’?

Because this is what it feels like to be categorized, stigmatized, othered. And it’s not just about Halloween costumes, or about being politically correct or about not hurting anyone’s feelings. It’s about the fact that the Halloween costumes that started this whole train of thought for me are a devastatingly accurate reflection of what is going through the minds of thousands of Americans: if you are sick, and your sickness lies in your brain, you are different. You are other. You are scary.

In extreme cases, if you are sick and your sickness lies in your brain, you are so scary that you’re actually dangerous, and you may even be killed. For being sick in a way that is, despite all our efforts and awareness-raising and painful sharing of personal stories to try to end the stigma, still unrecognizable and even less understandable to the greater population.

Because what happens when your brain is sick is that the world around you stops making sense, and you are unable to interpret the sights and circumstances of your surroundings for what they are. They become blurry, ambiguous, indefinable. Maybe paranoia blocks out all sense of reason, or maybe the sudden appearance of an authority figure causes confusion or fear. Waving a baseball bat in the middle of a psychotic episode should signal that a sick person is afraid and confused. Holding a handgun in contemplation of suicide should indicate that a person is in the darkest, most painful and vulnerable point in his or her life. Seeing a person with scars on her wrists should remind us that she is a fighter, a survivor — not fodder for a titillating, naughty Halloween costume.

These are not signs of danger, of interpersonal violence, of fascinating gore. They are indications that we — those who are acting or have acted in such a way — do not feel safe. That we are not safe in our own minds. That we are still less safe in the outer world that fails to understand us. That we are scared of being labeled, and dismissed, as other.

Ultimately, these actions of irrationality indicate that we cannot recognize our allies from our demons, that our state of mind has confused the people who are our safety nets with the ones who are pushing us closer toward the ledge. And now, I can’t help but feel, those blurred roles may be warranted, because it would appear that the rescuers who should be coming to our aid may not be able to recognize that battle raging within us. Our helpers, in these cases, can become our killers. It’s not enough that we fear being the other; we must now fear that being other will, ultimately, be the end of us.

I have never felt that the mere fact of who I am, of my existence, is a threat to my own safety. I am a straight, white woman who grew up in a nice town and has had little chance to feel the pain, confusion and isolation of being “the other.” I have a lot of privilege in this world, and I know it. I try never to forget it. But now that I feel it — sick, tearful, afraid, helpless — I know that I am learning a tiny something about how other minority members of our country must feel day to day. It’s exhausting. It’s nerve-wracking, and it’s agonizing. This is beyond stigma. This is beyond stereotypes and labels.

This is about being unable to take people out of the box you’ve put them in, and instead labeling that box with a big fat word — scary, or dangerous or other — and sealing it up tight, making growth and relationship and humanity impossible. It’s about making sure that everyone, be they trick-or-treaters or neighbors of those with mental illnesses or the children whose minds we have been charged with molding for the future, knows that we are not like them. That we are to be feared, to be left outside, to be permanently silenced in our bleakest moments rather than to be loved and cared for and helped to safety.

Somewhere, in all of this, we who live with mental illness have lost our right to be safe and respected while we are sick, and instead have been made out to be dangerous and threatening.

It seems that our fellow humans have learned that it is easier to mock the pain they see as attention-seeking, and to label as dangerous the behavior they believe is unreasonable, than to look with compassion on the person next to them and help make them safe.

We must do better.

Follow this journey on Go Where It Hurts.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

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Image via Thinkstock

Originally published: January 6, 2017
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