Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Disputing Misinformation:
Mental Illness & Deadly Force

Dear readers: today we are pleased to turn the blog over to guest blogger Tiffany Lee Brown, a Portland-based writer and performance artist whose on-going project "Candy Blue" deals with Brown's alter-ego and topics germane to bipolar disorder in particular and mentall illness in general. (we wrote about Candy Blue here.)

(This piece was written as a response to today's edition of NPR's "Talk of the Nation")

Today, Neal read aloud a letter from a man claiming to have
first-hand experience with mental illness, because his son has
bipolar disorder. That's called second-hand experience. I have
first-hand experience with it: I myself am bipolar; my writing and
performances about the condition have appeared in the Enteractive
Language Festival, Performance Works Northwest, and other venues.

I would really hate for your listeners to think that this man's
opinion (that it's okay for law enforcement to shoot the mentally
ill) and his experiences with his son (who refuses to take his meds),
are typical or somehow representative of mental illness in America.
Many of us take our meds, work alongside the rest of you, chat with
you in line at the grocery store, contribute greatly to our
communities. Most of us do not want to be murdered by law enforcement
officers, though we are four times more likely to have that happen to
us than are people not diagnosed with mental illnesses. It has now
been widely reported, by Time magazine and others, that the bipolar
man who was shot and killed by a Federal air marshal in Miami did
not, in fact, say he had a bomb. So why was he killed? Is it illegal
to have an anxiety attack and say you want to get off an airplane???

Our society is beginning to deal with mental health issues in a more
healthy way, but we need to lift the burden of shame and the legacy
of stigma currently beleaguering those of us with "serious" diagnoses
like bipolar disorder. We need to stop hiding our own mental
differences, and those of our families, in the closet, and start
accepting mental conditions. In recent years, thanks to Prozac and
the media storm following it, depression has become much less of a
stigmatized, hidden matter; so should other conditions.

Some tribal communities have celebrated bipolar states, elevating
manic-depressives to shaman status and giving them an active place in
society. While it's hard to imagine that happening in America, we
should at least attempt to come up with a better plan than murdering
the mentally ill when they happen to step out of line. Of course they
are going to say or do odd things: that's what mentally ill--you
know, CRAZY-- people *do.* That's how they get diagnosed in the first

How ironic, too, that this man's letter was immediately followed by
one that discussed the thousands of gays gassed by Nazis under
Hitler. So, too, were thousands of mentally ill people, though prior
to Nazi Germany, the United States of America led the world in forced
sterilization (eugenics), trying to weed the mentally ill out of the
gene pool. Nice try, guys, but it looks like we're here to stay.
Rather than shooting us at airports, it might be more intelligent to
contemplate what positive evolutionary force mental illness serves in
the gene pool; obviously, it serves some purpose, or it would indeed
have been weeded out by now.

- Tiffany Lee Brown,
editor of 2 Girls Quarterly


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