The Dignity of the Mentally Ill

Author note: this post dates back to August 6th, 2014. I clicked ‘draft’ and forgot about it. I posted it now because it is important to me.

Dignity is an imprecise word. It refers to a quality that essentially is conferred upon a person by others. One cannot possess dignity. It is given, donated perhaps. At best one can display dignity, however it is usually the case that when a a person is noted for behaving in a dignified manner it is usually in the midst of some sort of trial or difficulty that they are going through. As such we are all reliant upon our fellow humans for dignity.

This week a man was sectioned under the UK Mental Health Act after he was involved in some sort of bomb hoax on a flight which was escorted to land by a fighter jet. I doubt anyone would defend this act and it is clearly something that must be taken seriously, however, what I have found most upsetting about this incident is the rhetoric surrounding the condition of this man and the way he has been portrayed in the media. For one thing this is the first story I have seen in some time which deals with a mentally ill person and of course, it is not a story about the positive lives and contributions to the world made by many people who happen to be mentally ill. This story is, of course, about a nutter on a plane trying to blow it up, or pretending to do so at least. It is yet another scare story. I have previously discussed this sort of press coverage and it is nothing new. What is new is this quote taken from the Guardian

One police source said: “On a sliding scale we think we may be looking at an idiot rather than an international terrorist.”

This comes from the police so it is not to be dismissed as idle chit chat. The questions I want to ask this person are these: given that this man is already deprived of his liberty and will pay a bitter price for his actions taken when we was, in all likelihood, not accountable for his actions, was it really necessary to publicly humiliate him like that? What problem has been solved by saying that? Finally, did the person to whom this comment is attributed do anything other than substantially reinforce the stigma surrounding mental illness and the stereotypes that are often so brutal?

Furthermore, I briefly perused Twitter as I am often wont to do and I noticed that, of all people, Al Murray referred to him as follows

I regret posting this as I do not like the lazy brand of Internet journalism that lies in wait for someone to say something silly or offensive and then attacks, but I could not let this slide. I did have a brief and cordial exchange with Murray which you can find in my Twitter feed and I hold no grudge against Murray. I am sure as a famous and successful comedian he has no interest in my little corner of the web here either, just to be clear. The same questions apply, however. What has been accomplished by that tweet, other than the promotion of stigma and the ongoing bullying and oppression of a man whose only crime was to do something over which he could have had no control and cannot be held responsible for in law?

If people are not afforded dignity and respect then they will learn to behave in an undignified and disrespectful fashion. I would like to think that I, complete with my illness, am worth more to the world than the description of ‘a stupid c*nt’. Nobody deserves that when they are subjected to forces beyond their control in this way. I regret however that this is just another loony for people to sneer at, not realising for a moment that at any time in their lives it could be them.

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