The Bastardization of Mental Illness

by Maira Butt

The killer in the recent Charleston shootings is already having his horrific racist actions deconstructed under the guise of mental health problems. Already, his case is being treated as nuanced and complex, his history, upbringing, personality and background are being dealt with gently, with a judge even sympathising with his family for what he has done. And as always, we think, why does this same level of sympathy and empathy not translate to any for brown and black people? For any non-white, person of colour?

At the same time we are flaccidly unsurprised. Yet the gall with which the double-standards are being applied is becoming increasingly explicit, if it wasn’t so already. Dylan Roof decked out in a bulletproof vest was a slap in the face to a watching and waiting public who viewed the video of Eric Garner being man-handled, choked, and killed when arrested, to make only one comparison.

The first issue here is the lens through which we see both individuals. Dylan is white, Eric is black. ‘Terrorists’ are brown. In a world saturated, marinated and steeped in the effects of our colonial history, we inherit the psychology of the structures that our lives are embedded into; school, work, law, politics. All built on the blood and backs of colonialism, fuelled by the insidious ideology of white supremacy. Making the default, white – everything else is colour. Sugar and spice.

‘Racism and slavery are seen as historically relevant as the tragedy of their victims, rather than as vast and pervasive global institutions that have been economically, politically and ideologically central to the making of the modern world.’ – Margarita Aragon

Take complex issues like domestic abuse, parental control, existential crises and poverty. In my experience of mental illness, health professionals often treated these stresses as epithets of my ‘culture’. For example, domestic abuse, when this is reduced to a caricature of a misogynist brown Muslim man, much of the nuance and responsibility is lost. A ‘backwards mentality’ is blamed, exonerating the individual, dehumanising his narrative and accelerating the collective move towards a more ‘enlightened’ philosophy, presumably white and Western. I know many people who will not approach the mental health services because they fear being treated as a quintessentially ‘Muslim’ story, a brainwashed infantile adult with family attachment issues.

So what does this mean? We ‘non-whites’, with any history of mental health issues, find ourselves in the catch-22 of navigating racial injustices on a daily basis, in symbiosis with the psychological trauma and harm it necessarily inflicts. Then we are treated as cartoons and parodies, having our experience reduced and simplified to our ‘culture’ and race alone by the field of psychology. In other words, we are trapped within the colour of our skin, as well as within the confines of our mind. Now contrast this with a white person, whose humanity is first acknowledged as a person, not a culture, then responded to; whose every experience of offence is documented and voiced. I don’t have the answers on what to do about this. I am often frustrated and suffocated by my experience of depression, anxiety and racism. Let’s perhaps start by screaming what this hypocritical treatment of a racist serial killer is; unapologetic white privilege.

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Maira Butt is a graduate of the London School of Economics and Political Science where she completed her LLB in Law. She is currently completing her MEd in Psychology of Education at the University of Manchester. She is an aspiring writer and writes at her blog: thegatesofparadise.wordpress.com. Find her on twitter @mairaibutt.

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9 replies

  1. Interesting and great read, and its time we all start calling things exactly what they are. This was a domestic terrorist attack and it was 100% clearly No debating very racially driven. We all have work to do America, and its time to stop chalking up tragedies like this to mental health. This is why a large amount of people who have mental Illnesses, or issues based on Mental health DO NOT COME FORTH, because they are afraid that they will automatically be associated with the Dylan’s of the world. Something needs to occur to fully test these criminals to be sure if their claims are true or false and until they do find out, they need not call a person mentally ILL and deal with the exact criminal offenses they’ve committed.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This really rang some bells for me; having been the victim of several serious racist attacks and countless minor ones, I have experienced the virtual dismissal of therapists who quite simply do not think the issue serious. To be traumatized and depressed by being a victim is apparently less important these days than assigning illness to the violent oppressor. We are told we are making a fuss about nothing while the oppressors are offered sympathy.

    If white commentators start to come to a consensus that racism is a mental illness, I think we should counter with – ‘No, denying racism is the mental illness, racism is culturally endemic.’

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Reblogged this on Librarian to be. . . and commented:
    Mental illness is not a demon, it is not a systemic mandate of hate, it is an illness. This killer was not ill he was hateful, ignorant, and he wanted to spread terror. We should not attempt to excuse away the reality of what he is and his reasons for doing what he did because he’s white. That is unacceptable.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. So many emotions accompanied me as I read this piece, and par usual, I cannot express them because there are not enough words or correct phrases that can encompass my sentiments.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. One among many reasons why I’ve resisted any talk about mental health until recently has been the stigmatised image in the media. Already in the right wing media they’re blaming his actions on his depression medication, SSRIs. Whether this is the case or not the mud sticks…

    Liked by 2 people

  6. If it was done by a muslim, he would be labelled a terrorist and a few muslim countries would be invaded and 2 billion muslims around the world should apologise for the rest of their lives.

    Liked by 2 people

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