September 9, 2013

Assuming mental illness

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , at 8:18 pm by chavisory

(This is partly adapted from comments I’ve already made elsewhere.)

There’s no graceful way to write an opening paragraph about how another autistic teenager’s parent tried to kill her.  Issy Stapleton’s mother Kelli, only days after Issy had come home from a months-long residential treatment program for aggression, drove her to a secluded location, lit two gas grills inside the family van, and tried to kill both Issy and herself by carbon monoxide poisoning.

And there’s a lot to say about how wrong it is to automatically tie crimes like this to lack of services or support for parents and care providers, and how common erasure and dehumanization of the disabled child victims in reporting on these crimes is, that other people are saying better than I could.

But twice in a very short span of time, I observed another disturbing tendency that I hadn’t in this context before:  The rush to assume that the perpetrator parent must have been mentally ill, or that it’s unbelievable that she would have done this if she were in her right mind.  Typically before this, I’d heard a lot of the “they had to have been mentally ill, why else would they do this?” narrative spun out in regards to mass killings or shooting sprees, while the handy explanation for parental murders of disabled children has tended to be “they were understandably overwhelmed; we need more services.”  This might be the first time in my recollection that explanations for the (attempted) murder of a disabled child has turned so quickly to how supposedly the parent could not have been in her “right mind,” or of “sound mind” at the time.

And it needs to stop.

We do not know that Kelli was mentally ill. Maybe she was. Maybe she was in some kind of acute state of crisis.  I don’t know; I don’t know her.

But people do horrible, immoral things to other people every damn day, who are not mentally ill.
People DO NOT only do horrible things when they’re mentally ill.
I was bullied and emotionally abused for YEARS, on a practically daily basis, by people around me who were not mentally ill.

The sum of our behavior towards others is composed of much, much more than our mental health status.

Values play a role.
Worldviews play a role.
Attitudes about children and the disabled play a role.
Attitudes about what kind of lives are worth living and who has a right to life, play a role.
What people believe and want to believe about themselves play a role.
Beliefs about where your rights end and others’ begin, play a role.
Beliefs about other people’s right to, and ownership of, their own lives and bodies play a role.
Learned assumptions about what society does and does not accept, and who society does and does not value, play a role.
Convictions and prior choices about how you will and will not live your life play a role.

Saying that the obvious takeaway from this incident is that we need mental illness treated better or taken more seriously, serves to “other” people who do horrible things from the mainstream of humanity, to deny that normal, stable, unimpaired people could ever think to do something so awful…

…BUT THEY DO.  They do literally all the time.  They do every day.  They especially do those things to children, the vulnerable, the marginalized, and people who widespread societal attitudes teach that it’s okay to think of as slightly less than fully human or self-aware.  Often they even think that they’re doing the right thing, or at least something that’s okay, when they do.

And I don’t understand–I just do not understand how so many people have such an easy time denying that normal, healthy people–people like them–are capable of, and DO, choose to inflict incredible cruelty on other people, because they believe they have a right to.

Does it require having never been the target yourself?  To be able to not know that?

I don’t claim to know what was going through Kelli’s head that made this an option to her, that made murder/suicide look like an acceptable way out…other than that I’d say chances are low that she believed in the depth of her being that Issy had an absolute and unilateral RIGHT to her own life.

Even if it wasn’t the life Kelli wanted for her.
Even if Kelli thought she’s screwed it up irreparably.
Even if Issy really was as difficult as she’s been portrayed in her mother’s blog and in the reporting on her attempted murder (and that’s become somewhat doubtful in my mind).
Even if her problems were truly so serious that Kelli felt she couldn’t be her parent anymore.
Even if it meant walking away from her.

And that’s not a viewpoint that requires a mental illness or emotional crisis to instill–that’s a viewpoint towards autistic, disabled, and challenging children that is very, very commonplace.  That they ultimately have far less of a sacrosanct right of ownership of their own lives than their parents or guardians do.

People do not only make evil choices when they are abused, in emotional crisis, or lacking resources.  And people also live through unimaginably hard things and still actively make choices, in accordance with their beliefs and values, about what they will and won’t do to other people.

It is scapegoating and othering of mental illness, to try to remove accountability for the action from the person.
It is incredibly dangerous for the mentally ill, to be assumed incapable by default of making safe decisions, having self-awareness, exercising judgment, or considering the rights of others.
It is an attempt to pretend that unimpaired people don’t decide to do terrible things to other people.
That the people we care about, who we identify as being like ourselves, could never, simply, betray our expectations of them, our hopes, what we believed or wanted to believe to be true.

But people do that every day, too.

Other reading
Countering: The Hope for Illumination: Issy Deserves Better

love explosions: Where was I when Kelli needed help?

Radical Neurodivergence Speaking:  Here, try on some of my shoes.

You don’t need this junk.  You need a cat.: Practically everyone thinks they’re doing either the right thing, or the only possible thing, at the time.


  1. You’re right. Maybe it’s because people are more aware of legal defenses that involve mental illnesses and think that’s the same as morality? Or maybe it’s like you say, they want to believe good of the person involved so it’s a way to remove any intent to harm. But yes, people do bad things every day that don’t involve mental illness. We’ve struggled with that idea forever, through literature, philosophy, and religion.

  2. […] Assuming mental illness: Chavisory points out that assuming that someone is mentally ill when some tragedy like this occurs is wrong. It dehumanizes both the victim and people who suffer from a genuine mental illness, but who don’t go ahead and murder others. Written based on comments chavisory has made elsewhere, on other blog posts – so if you read the others I’m recommending here, you’ll probably encounter them. Still, good to read in and of itself. […]

  3. dennis said,

    Do not fall so readily for the ‘obvious’, please. While out status as subhuman objects requires us to buy whatever our betters sell us, I suggest that, if possible, you should only ‘appear’ to buy their rubbish. Here is what’s probably REALLY going on:
    Since all ‘normals’ are ‘obsessed’ with Power expressed as Social
    Dominance, they all wish to become ‘the god’. As a consequence, they want ‘worship’ – imitation, flattery, gifting, etc. Their divine status is exemplified by perfection – and as they are perfect, so must their issue be perfect -perfect in all ways – and since their issue is a part of themselves, then any deviation from their unstated plan (for world domination and control) is evidence of treason showing forth as rebellion…
    Only one solution works for rebellion, if you’re a small-g god: death.

    • chavisory said,

      Hi dennis,

      Chances are strong that I’m missing your point somehow, but I don’t think this comment is on topic for the post. I try not to moderate or restrict comments if I can help it, but I would appreciate it if comments could more or less stick to discussion of the topic at hand.

  4. Anonymous said,

    I assumed she was mentally ill at first. I now see how wrong and ableist that was. Thank you for this post. It’s well-written and important.

  5. […] chavisory […]

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