The Sociopolitical Implications of the Words “Disability” and “Mental Illness” (from In Defense of the Mind)

Below is an excerpt from my philosophical treatise, In Defense of the Mind, a treatise on the philosophy of mind and the philosophy of mental illness. If you like what you read, you can find the book here:




The words “disability” and “mental illness” in and of themselves are not bad things, and sometimes are accurate words to describe certain conditions of being. However, the usage of these terms has been so stretched, warped, contorted, and distorted as to lose meaning and the original meaning, and these terms also carry a lot of sociopolitical, cultural, and social baggage that makes it difficult for people with a disability/mental illness to function.


I don’t know enough about other kinds of disability (except for mental illness) to talk about them eloquently and efficiently and accurately, so I am going to confine my discussion of the word disability to the context of mental illness.


First, let’s start with the sociopolitical implications of the word “mental illness.” When people think of someone with a mental disorder, what do they think of? They think of someone who is crazy, which naturally, has negative connotations. Nobody wants to be around a crazy person. The word crazy is so commonly used and misused in society, that it would seem nobody wants to actually be called crazy. When you’re crazy, it means you don’t think right, and you do things that are unacceptable in society.


What other implications does mental illness carry? Perhaps the stereotype that you’re a creepy person. Maybe that you’re homeless. Certainly that you’re stupid, and perhaps even violent.


One of the problems with having mental illness described as a brain disease, is that people think that your mind, with the illness, isn’t flexible, and can’t learn. There are exceptions in our cultural context, of course, such as John Nash, but in general, people with a brain disease/mental illness, are seen has being intrinsically stupid, because their brain doesn’t work properly, and there is nothing that can be done. They are seen as intrinsically violent, because again, it is a demeanor that is built into the “mental illness.”


This is probably why the word mental illness isn’t tossed around as often as it should be, when considering how many people have it (if the statistics are correct, one-fourth of any given population). This is why I am terrified in day-to-day life to tell people that I have a mental illness. I don’t want them to label me as violent, or more commonly, as an idiot. I can’t tell you how many times I have been treated condescendingly by many people when they know I have a mental illness, whether that is people that actually work in the mental healthcare field (psychiatrists, therapists, pharmacists …), or people in general.


So, mental illness comes loaded with major stereotypes, the main ones being that you are stupid and violent. Let’s focus on the idea that when you have a mental illness, you’re stupid, as well as incompetent. You can’t do anything right.


I don’t think we want to underestimate the power of suggestion when it comes to things like this. When people are constantly condescending to you because they think you’re stupid, at what point do you start to actually believe that you have nothing to contribute? I imagine if you have even a decent will, with decent strength, it doesn’t take long before you start adopting these beliefs as your own. It was funny, because I was talking to a friend one time, and he told me, “For someone who is so opposed to the stereotypes of mental illness, you sure use them a lot in our discussions when talking about yourself.”


This is funny, but it’s also eye-opening. I have a pretty strong resolve, and I know that people with mental illness are generally good people, just with an affliction, and yet, I have unconsciously and maybe even consciously adopted all of the heavy baggage and weighted rhetoric that surrounds the term mental illness. For instance, I’ve slowly bought the myth, somewhere within my head, that “mental illness” is intrinsic to me, and so must be my stupidity and incompetence.


This is where I definitely want to bring in the word “disability” into the discussion.


When you have a disability, society acknowledges that you have some kind of “disabling condition,” which in politically correct terms, simply means that you have some condition that prevents you from functioning fully in society. I don’t dispute that this is true. I don’t dispute that I have a disability, in this sense. I do have something that impairs my ability to function in society.


However, that definition is so heavily exaggerated in society that it becomes almost a joke. When you have a disability, people start to believe that you can’t do anything. They start to believe that your disability defines you. They start to believe that you have absolutely no potential, that you basically just suck up money from the government and don’t contribute to society.


Such a bleak viewpoint no doubt makes me very sad, and discouraged. To think that my disability means that I have trouble functioning in society is one thing, but to say that I can’t function at all in society is a completely different thing.


The tragedy of this is that those with disabling mind conditions start to believe this hogwash that they have no potential and can’t contribute to society. They have a harder time getting jobs, if they can even get one. I remember Daniel Tammet, a person who suffered from autism, describing how it’s common for those with autism to have trouble getting jobs, and I imagine it’s because of the stereotypes. People with autism tend to be incredibly smart, and yet, they aren’t given the same time of day as an employee with no history of mental illness or psychological impairment.


There is a reason why the word “stigma,” with all of its implications of branding, is used when describing the painful impact and effects of being labeled with a disability and mental illness.


It would seem to me that even though the word disability is a word that must be used in some instances to clarify a situation, there is simply too much baggage and confusion surrounding it, to the point to where what isn’t disabling isn’t actually the disability itself, but rather the way in which the word is used to talk about other people. I think something can be said about a disability and the word disability causing so much trouble that it isn’t your condition that prevents you from being a functional person in society but rather the word itself and the application of the word.


When the word “disability” is tossed around so liberally, what we end up creating is exactly what we don’t want: unfunctional citizens in our society. I would even go so far as to say that what we end up with are citizens who are disengaged with society, because they have been rejected so much due to the baggage and connotations of the word disability. Nothing could be more destructive to a functional society than encouraging disengagement in citizens. I’m not sure if I’m supposed to see this analysis as society purposely using the word disability to exorcise certain people from their functioning polis, or if this is simply a byproduct of all the confusion surrounding the words “disability” and “mental illness.”


What is the problem with having disengaged citizens? In a democracy like America, I think it’s pretty clear: You don’t have citizens who are taking part in politics and the polis, for instance. You don’t have people who are voting. You don’t have people who are engaging in public policy. It’s like the realization that the homeless really don’t have a whole lot of say about what happens to their own services, simply because they are kept at a distance from the polis.


In the case of those with a mental illness, you have people who have a disorder who don’t have a say in their treatment. They might have a say in certain instances, but I am skeptical at how much of a say they truly have, and that is simply due to the fact that they have a mental disorder/disability.


I’ll offer an example of the instilled disengagement that I have witnessed firsthand. I once taught a class of English literature and poetry at an institute where people would go to receive treatment and help for their illness. At first, the class went well, but after a while, I was no longer able to instill a sense of engagement into the clients (people that were just like me). There was some drama multiple times with the staff, and it finally culminated in a hurtful incident that required me to leave, if I was going to do what was good for my mental health and my well-being.


Now, let’s pause for a moment. What can be the benefit of teaching literature to people with mental illnesses? Certainly, you are teaching them language, which can help them communicate more clearly and efficiently. You are also opening their imagination, which certainly must have beneficial effects for the mind. You are also distracting the people from their problems, whether mental or otherwise. So clearly, there are many benefits with teaching literature to people with a mental illness. In short, you are giving them a chance to get outside of themselves and to function at a more critical level.


Well, here’s the disappointing fact: One week after I had left, I went back, and found out that the instructors were playing child’s games, like Candyland, in place of my class, of English literature.


Let’s pause again: What would be the problem with simply playing child’s games? I know that I am overly highly functional (for my own good, as it makes me feel more stupid and it makes me have a harder time adjusting to every day society … as if that wasn’t a problem already, due to my mental illness), and I might have an intensity about me in terms of wishing to teach something difficult to people, but here’s what frustrates me, and I will do my best to articulate why this is a problem: Because these clients are seen as having severe disabilities, they are seen as people who cannot handle a minor “push” to challenge themselves and become better people, more engaged. You can’t engage with this difficult world by simply playing board games all day. You have a better shot at that when you learn communication skills. I know that I have romanticized notions about such things, but I also know that there’s certainly some truth to it. The very fact that these people had a disability prevented the peer mentors from giving the clients an opportunity to grow as people and to become engaged, and rather, they encouraged disengagement.


Usually the response is that the system is broken, but my interpretation is we can never underestimate the crippling effects of being labeled with a mental illness and with, more specifically, a “disability.” It has many crippling effects, because like I said before, people think that you don’t just have trouble functioning but can’t function at all, and it isn’t long before you start believing this yourself and applying it to your life.


For a productive society, there can be nothing worse (or more contradictory) than having disengaged citizens; and yet, as I’ve said before, this is the effect of having the sociopolitical impact of the words “disability” and “mental illness.”


In my case, I am generally high functioning, but I have been knocked down so many times that I have doubted the validity of my abilities. I have been insulted on many counts, whether by social workers or doctors, who imply in one way or another, that I can’t be an author with a published book, that I can’t be intelligent, that I can’t even be human. This has made me feel disengaged myself, from society at large. If it wasn’t for my persistence and constant questioning of the way I am treated, I would have thrown in the towel a long time ago. I think this is especially unfortunate when I know that specifically, I have a lot to offer, but can’t offer it because society doesn’t believe I can offer it. The terrible thing is that a person with a mental illness always has to work to keep their mental illness in check, but then, when they are treated like a second-class citizen, they have to work even harder to mentally combat the stereotypes leveled against them. They have to work harder to prove that they have worth, not even to society, but to themselves, and this seems like a waste of mental resources and time. It is at the very least, a step backwards. If you tell people with a mental illness that they are only good enough to play board games, it isn’t long before they start to believe that. In my own experience, I have only seen destruction.


If the goal is to create disengaged citizens in society, however, to create citizens who are unfunctional, all one has to do is exploit the sociopolitical connotations of the words “mental illness” and “disability.” It is remarkably easy, and incredibly effective. Like I’ve implied, I can see right through it, and I still fall for it.


I almost want to go so far as to say that the word “disability,” while useful in certain instances, is also for the most part a social construction. Is a person ever truly disabled, for instance? Sure, they might have a physical impairment or a mental one, but that doesn’t mean they are “disabled.” Disabled implies that the person can’t live up to the task of living in society (which seems to be a social construction/assumption), and while this might be true in some cases, it isn’t true in all cases. There’s no doubt that a person who is blind will have a harder time functioning, but it isn’t impossible, and in some cases, the blind person might function better than a normally functioning person, because they have more determination and passion for living.


When I describe disability as being a social construct, I’m not saying that it doesn’t exist; but what I am saying is that the implications surrounding it are indeed social constructions. Technically, and in an ideal world, the term disability shouldn’t even exist, because it immediately labels a person as incapable of functioning in society, which is the opposite of what society actually wants. Again, I don’t want to say that disabilities don’t exist, but I also don’t want to exaggerate how disabled people with disabilities are. We need to find a middle ground, and we need to realize that a disability, while certainly a challenge, is not the end of the world for a person. It can be crippling, but it is no reason to give up on a person who has it. The problem with socially constructing certain ideas about disability is that, as I’ve implied, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Once you are labeled as having a disability, you start to believe that you are disabled. When you look at the word disabled, it implies that you have some physical impairment: but its other connotation is that you have been disabled from existing in society; you as a person have been disabled, rendered obsolete and useless.


I myself have never liked the word “disability.” When people say that I have a disability, it always makes me uncomfortable. I immediately want to protest with, “No, I’m not disabled, I just have a mental illness.” I naturally want to protest because I am aware of the implications of disability, of what people are saying when they say, “Stephan has a disability.” Usually it’s in the context of me being unable to do something, and so in order to make this clear, they use the word “disability.” It’s hard usually not to find this offensive. I know I have a disability, but I don’t consider it a disability the way that people normally describe it. I do think that I need extra help in certain ways, but what I always want to tell the people that use the word disability on my behalf, is that I can do much of it on my own, if I am just given the chance and given proper instruction. But there has been an internalized belief from the people around me that I can’t, which is why they invoke the word disability. It makes the job of the social worker easier, for instance, because they have something to fall back on to explain why I (supposedly) can’t rise up to the task.


In other words, I’m describing my first-hand experience with being labeled as “disabled.” It reduces the confidence in myself, which can never be helpful, and is sometimes used as an excuse to label me as a specific person (as being unable to rise up to the challenge). This is certainly unfair, for a lot of reasons, and it has been limiting, but you do what you can. I can’t control the sociopolitical implications of the word disability that I have been discussing.


All of this nicely fits into my theory of mind, my dualistic existentialism. Indeed, this is where I’m going to sound counterintuitive, but it is necessary that I talk about my illness and disability in this way. Let’s say that I am missing my leg. I can be the kind of person who chooses to be miserable (with his label of disability) and never tries to contribute to society and make his life better … or I can try to train for a marathon (as some people have certainly done). The choice is mine.


The same is true for my label of mental illness/schizoaffective. I could believe that I have nothing to offer, but because I want to defend the mind and its powers, I am instead going to push against the terrible stereotypes, the judgements, the crippling effects of being labeled with the word “disability,” and the like. I am going to be fully responsible for my nature and my choices, to the best I can be. I will have to work harder, of course, because I will have to defy stereotypes. But, I am not going to be disengaged; I’m not going to be a disengaged citizen. I am in fact going to write to my heart’s content, writing and writing books and getting better and better, and I’m going to do what I can to influence policy affecting the mentally ill and the homeless, and I’m going to write pieces about mental illness and homelessness to educate others, and the like. I think you’re starting to see a pattern. With my limitations, my cognitive inabilities, I am still choosing to maximize my potential. I in fact believe that it is my “disability” that allows me to do these kinds of things. They will stop me in terms of the social sphere (I can hear people saying, “Well, he had a disability, so we can’t expect anything from him.”), but that doesn’t mean I can’t, with the limits constraining me, do my absolute best to change the world for the better, and to not give up, and to find my purpose, and to live up to my purpose. Really, it’s all in the eye of the beholder. If a quadriplegic thinks they are beautiful, then they are beautiful, and no one has a right to say otherwise. Same with me: If I believe I can contribute, then I am going to do that, and I will just have to work past the sociopolitical ramifications of the words that follow me (disability and mental illness). It requires more effort, as I’ve said, but it’s worth it. The terms disability and mental illness are distractions from talking about what a person is really capable of.


Anyway, to close on this subject, and the limitations of these words being used: When the word mental illness and the word disability are used liberally, it is not in defense of mind. To say that my mind is disabled because I have delusions and mania by definition prevents me from using my mind to its maximum potential. It is not in defense of mind. It is not in defense of my mind. My whole thesis in many ways has been that these words and all the baggage surrounding them create realities that aren’t true. The person with the prosthetic leg can run a marathon if he chooses; the same with me. With my mind, I can either let it decay in the context of its mental disease, or I can push my mind to its extreme. I choose the latter: I’m going to push my mind far beyond its potential. That’s why I spend so much time learning and reading and observing and studying and thinking and being and living: I’m going to maximize the potential of my mind. I’m not worried about becoming a great thinker, but I am worried about becoming a greater thinker, one who can use thought and thinking so specifically that it not only defies what people would expect from a person with a disability, but it changes the world for the better. It’s important to me that I use my mind as a weapon for change, for good. It’s important to me that I use dualistic existentialism to understand my own mind and to be in control of it as much as I possibly can. I’m not trying to downplay my illness, because it does cause a lot of heartache for me, but as Viktor Frankl would say, we can’t control the stimulus, but we can control our response. I think this describes it really well. I can’t always control what my mind wants to do, but I can control how I respond to it, or at least I better control how I respond to it. So I can’t always control the delusion that flits through my head, but I can either choose to act on it or turn it into a good idea for a new book. I am going to run that marathon, and I am not going to be an object of pity and contempt. There is a reason why I promote the concept of dualistic existentialism. I firmly believe that if people with a mental illness were taught this concept, more than the concepts of disability and mental illness, we would live in a much more productive society: The expectations on the mentally ill would be fair but tougher. I have had to discover this concept myself, but I am hoping that it can be passed along, and can be employed systematically.


Man is fully responsible for his thoughts and his feelings. I can’t control all my mind does, but I’m going to do my best to shape my mind to its maximum potential.


That is all there is to it. Giving in to the labels of disability and mental illness will just get in the way. I am capable. I am able. And I will prove it, no matter how long it takes. And I would just ask you, the reader, to think twice about the sociopolitical implications of the words disability and mental illness, and what they mean, and why it can be very problematic.



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