Readers in Council,
The Japan Times,
5-4, Shibaura 4-chome,
Minato-ku, Tokyo 108-0023
It is irritating that whenever there is an attack on a public figure or a violent public security incident - a man injuring the Italian premier, a woman rushing the Pope, a school gunman on a killing spree, a foiled airplane bomber, an armed hostage taker, a suicide bomber, an intruder in the White House - news reports too quickly describe the suspects as people with “a history of mental illness,” or otherwise “mentally disturbed.” It might be true, but automatic use of the sanity card is suspiciously easy.
First, journalists, police, airport security people and government spokesmen are not qualified judges of or commentators on mental health. Second, those who are qualified - the psychiatric and psychology professionals - are mostly foolish quacks in my biased opinion. Third, even if the perpetrators of such incidents are indeed mentally ill, does it necessarily follow that their behavior is the product of derangement? Although the aim of the mentally unstable epithet is to disqualify motives and excuse behavior on the presumption that actions of the mentally ill are compromised by their condition, I often feel that their motives deserve better regard than they receive with the dismissive accusation that they are “mentally disturbed.” Fourth, mental health is a wedge that divorces us from moral responsibility for ourselves and relieves us of the burden to think more critically about some issues. There is conflict among authorities who wield the label for competing purposes, and calling people mentally disturbed just makes it easier for the rest of us to avoid thinking about certain things.
Consider these propositions: if a murderer was mentally incompetent when he killed that does not make him innocent of the crime because of diminished responsibility. It only means that he is not culpable for it. We take it for granted that if a person says they are hearing voices then they must have a mental pathology. But what if they really are hearing voices? If a person claims to have been abducted by aliens or to have seen a ghostly apparition or a vision of the Virgin Mary they must be liars or deranged. But what if they are telling the factual truth? If a person says they are time travelers visiting us from the future we just dismiss them. But what if they really are?
Published on Thursday, December 31, 2009 as “Convenient mental illness hedge.”
The newspaper printed this only slightly edited. But it did delete the final sentences, “If a person claims to have been abducted by aliens or to have seen a ghostly apparition or a vision of the Virgin Mary they must be liars or deranged. But what if they are telling the factual truth? If a person says they are time travelers visiting us from the future we just dismiss them. But what if they really are?” I regret that because I think it robs a little from my point, which is that no one knows the mind of another, that it is little more than gross presumption for ‘professionals’ to pretend to know better than individuals what is best for them - mental health professionals in this case - and that that is my reason for dismissing psychiatry and psychology as foolish quacks. Indeed, it is that remark that I expect to take most flack for if the paper publishes rebuttals. When it comes to mental health suicide is my preferred approach, rather than, say schizophrenia or some other major psychosis.