Mental illness and homosexuality are considered separate issues in 2014, but one important thing they have in common is a long history of cultural perception revolving around the individual’s “choice” to be gay or “choice” to be mentally ill. Retired psychologist Dr. Philip Hickey says that until 1974, homosexuality was even considered a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association. Hickey calls homosexuality “the mental illness that went away” and says that mainstream vilification and persecution of homosexuals was done away with because “gay people gained a voice and began to make themselves heard.” Society has proved itself capable of deeper understanding and a broader concept of human rights in terms of gay parity and anti-discrimination laws over the past decade: now mental illness parity needs to follow suit in the cultural consciousness.
There was no scientific breakthrough justifying the removal of homosexuality from the DSM-II, according to Hickey — just a gradual shift in understanding. Hickey says that there are no mental illnesses, only complicated people — and yet, many people in the United States living with diagnoses recognized as mental illnesses are subject to the kinds of persecution and sensationalizing of their conditions that, were it directed at a different people-group, would be seen as outright bigoted.
There is much conflicting information about mental illness and so many unknowns. This complicates understanding. Some studies indicate that mental illness is caused by a person’s environment: rates of mental illness have shown to be higher in soldiers than civilians, for example. Other studies point toward a genetic cause, such as a father aged upwards of 45.
Many people living with mental illness feel afraid to come out of the closet and tell their friends and co-workers of their condition for fear of stigma. In the US, health insurance companies have denied coverage to the mentally ill. What will it take for people with mental illnesses to feel that they can make their voices heard in society? In the Gay Rights Movement, many prominent public figures and celebrities came out as either gay or in support of gay rights, speaking up for those who did not have a voice. In his 2006 documentary The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive, British actor and writer Stephen Fry explores his own journey living with a mental illness, as well as the story of Princess Leia actress Carrie Fischer.
The behavior of a person with a mental illness is often assumed to be the person’s fault: poor impulse control, bad choices, and drug use — without much insight on the part of the person making the assumption that many people with such illnesses use drugs and alcohol to self-medicate. Additionally, many people may not have access to effective, legal treatments such as psychiatric evaluation and therapy. Even when people have access to therapeutic medications, many of the generic versions of these drugs are manufactured in China and India without adequate FDA regulation, in order to save US drug companies money. Some generics are essentially placebos with no active ingredients, and yet for many people insurance will not cover the more closely regulated name-brand drugs, which can cost as much as $250 per medication, per month. Seeing as 1 in 5 Americans is estimated to have a mental illness, what if society became as outraged over this lack of parity for America’s mentally ill as, during the recent Sochi Olympics, Americans became outraged by Vladimir Putin’s law against promoting homosexuality to minors? Americans were also shocked at Russia imprisoning people for being homosexual, yet unmedicated people with mental illnesses often end up in America’s for-profit prison system.
Perhaps this is because there is a strain running through American society that seems to be telling people mental illness is just an excuse for bad behavior. Fox News recently ran the headline “Kidnapping dad caught faking mental illness,” emphasizing a plea of mental insanity as a way of getting away with crimes. In literature, too, there is the notion that the mad woman in the attic is not really mad.
When former child star Amanda Bynes famously went through a psychotic break in 2013, many people, ignorant of what a bipolar or schizophrenic episode might look like, assumed from Bynes’s behavior that she was a simply spoiled star who had let fame and fortune ruin her judgment instead of a person in desperate need of compassion and help. When Bynes finally set fire to herself and her dog in a woman’s driveway, was placed under a psychiatric hold, and diagnosed with schizophrenia, the press finally had the decency to stop jeering at her downfall (although perhaps then only because in hospital she was away from the public eye).
A society that can move away from prejudices against homosexuality and towards an acceptance of gay parity laws should be capable of the move towards treating those who live with mental illness with acceptance, as human beings, with understanding of their reality. While sexuality is an aspect of human nature to embrace whereas moodiness, depression, and paranoia may be harder to stomach, these are aspects of human nature too, and nobody — especially if they have no choice over their behavior — deserves to be the target of discriminatory laws and assumptions that make their lives even more difficult.
Opinion By Marilee Newell