Mental Illness and Reputation

Ignatius Reilly from A Confederacy of Dunces

The worst long-term effect of a mental illness, after recovery, is the lost reputation owing to stupid and embarassing shit you did while lacking lucidity. I have a long litany of these things. Not just from mental illness but my neurological condition, too. Asperger’s social mistakes, panic attacks, anxiety attacks, depressive episodes, and more. I have had a colorful and storied mental health history. Recently, John Hinkley Jr. was released from mental custody and apparently has a large social media following and music career. I look to him with my tongue in my cheek and envy since I have done nothing nearly as evil as him and yet probably have been forgiven far less by the people I have offended.

As George Orwell wrote in “On the Road to Wigan Pier”, it is the metaphorical stench of people which offends others most and that crimes, regardless of gravity, that are not immediate and acute enough to people for them to care don’t always affect people. I am certain that among Hinkley’s fans are people who don’t forgive people for racial slurs or transphobia. It stands to reason, affluent white people are more likely to know transgender people than victims of violent crimes but it speaks ill of human nature. Everyone should be forgiven but lesser offenses should be easier to forgive.

Ironically, in recent years, forgiving the relatively minor fuck-ups of the mentally stressed has become less done. This owes, itself, to hypersensitivity. People are, generally, less forgiving than they were in earlier generations. People view themselves with far more self-pity than earlier and thus victims of anyone who hurt their feelings which, ironically, leads to hurt feelings among the people they can’t bring themselves to forgive. They and their cognative biases conspire to turn anyone who slighted them into a monster and to hyperbolize the transgression in order to justify a more severe and thus more sympathetic martyrdom.

The hypersensitivity has not made people more empathetic but less. People don’t consider what it is like to “walk in another person’s shoes” and feel they don’t have any moral duty to. It has made people screamingly solipsistic and selfish. Ghosting has become much more common because one’s own comfort outweighs their responsibility to others. “Mental health” to them means taking care of yourself which means putting oneself before others. Across social media, the number of memes which tell people to take care of themselves and to put themselves first is insane. If someone feels “toxic”, try to consider what they’re going through and work things through. Cutting someone off should be a last resort and ghosting is very inconsiderate and rude.

Much more than professional help, people need communities that create an environment that lends itself to mental health and that requires the participation of everyone. Mental health professionals are doctors but doctors can’t stop sectarian violence that rips bullets through flesh or clean pollution from nature, only a people can do that together. Psychologists can bandage people who come in to their offices but they cannot stop people from being sent there and without the help of a better environment, they can’t cure anything. You can’t just see someone suffering who offends you and say they need to get help, if you have some relationship with them then it is, in part, your responsibility as their sibling’s keeper to do what you can and that includes risking your social capital to defend them against other people who are offended by them.

The current conversation surrounding mental health is mostly focussed on reducing the stigma of having a mental health condition and expanding access to care and not coexisting alongside people who have them. Without that last factor, the plight of people with mental health conditions cannot improve because stress and depression are what, in large part, caused those conditions and a society that is intolerant of people fucking-up, being off, and being weird will make those conditions worse. Learning how to forgive and not judge the deviances of people that may be uncomfortable is the next and needed progression of the mental health movement.

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