No Bernie Sanders, Don't Compare the Republican Debate to People With Mental Illness

It doesn't take much to recognize that the banter heard from last Thursday's Republican presidential debate would have been better suited for a middle school boys' locker room -- not a nationally broadcasted debate. Egged on by Donald Trump's taunts, 16.9 million viewers watched as Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and John Kasich fumbled to discuss issues of domestic and foreign policy. While Cruz and Kasich attempted to brand themselves as candidates who could unify a party falling apart under a potential Trump presidency, it was clear to all that the debate reflected a grade-school level of discourse that was exemplified by this following Ted-Cruz-Rubio exchange.

Cruz: Donald, please, I know it's hard not to interrupt. Try.
Trump: It's not what you said in the op-ed.
Cruz: Breathe, breathe, breathe.
Trump: I am, Ted.
Cruz: You can do it. You can breathe. I know it's hard. I know it's hard. But just...
Rubio: When they're done with the yoga, can I answer a question?
Trump: I really hope we don't see yoga on this stage.
Rubio: He's very flexible, so you never know.

Given the state of the Republican debates, it seemed natural to expect some decency from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during Sunday night's Democratic debate. And while Sunday night's debate swiftly touched on topics of racial justice, environmental degradation, water politics and gun control, a joke on mental illness made by Sanders revealed that ignorance could exist on both sides of the political spectrum.

In a pointed jab at Republican candidates, Sanders joked that Republican debates were further proof that America needed to invest in improving mental health. "We are, if elected president, going to invest a lot of money into mental health," he said. "And when you watch these Republican debates, you know why we need to address the mental health."


Clinton laughed, the audience laughed and even Sanders himself laughed, but for many Americans, Sanders' trivializing comparison between the Republican debates and people who live with mental illness reflected the same juvenile discourse found in his opponents. While joking about the state of the Republican party, Sanders stigmatized mental illness -- a serious issue that he claims to be a champion on -- by using it as a punchline to prove the stupidity of the Republican debates. While Sanders' supporters claim that he is the most progressive leader in the presidential race, in light of his joke, we must account for how the language of his ableist comment perpetuates dangerous myths about people who live with mental illness. Twitter responded to Sanders' joke with anger:

What made Sanders' joke about mental health particularly alarming is how out of touch it is with his outspoken record on mental health. For the majority of his campaign for president, Bernie Sanders' appeal for American youths jaded with politics has primarily been about his consistent record on many progressive issues -- especially mental health. When Sanders announced his single-payer health plan last January, he called for a "revolution" in how the American health care system treats people with mental health issues.

"When we talk about addiction being a disease, the secretary [former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton] is right, what that means is we need a revolution in this country in terms of mental health treatment. People should be able to get the treatment that they need, when they need it, not two months from now, which is why I believe in universal health care with mental health a part of that."

It seems natural that Sanders would be cognizant of using language that is inclusive and resists the dangerous myths typically associated with mental illness in the media. But, when Sanders joked about Republican candidates suffering from mental illness, he was using the same rhetoric and language used by the NRA spokesman Wayne LaPierre, when he argued that the United States should create an "active national database of the mentally ill." As LaPierre argued, people who suffered from mental illness were egotistical, violent and seekers of "wall-to-wall attention" and "a sense of identity that they crave, while provoking others to try to make their mark." He continued, "A dozen more killers, a hundred more? How can we possibly even guess how many, given our nation's refusal to create an active national database of the mentally ill?"

LaPierre's dangerous myth about people with mental illness being violent, egotistical and attention seeking almost directly parallels Sanders' rhetorical comparison with the Republican candidates -- most notably Trump. But comparing Republican candidates to Americans who suffer from mental illness does those who live with mental illness an injustice. His careless joke only served to marginalize a minority who is already misunderstood and stigmatized.

Those who propagate dangerous myths of those living with mental illness being violent ignore the fact that people with mental illness are more likely to be inflicted by violence and are increasingly becoming a target of police brutality. In fact, only about three to five percent of violent acts in the United States are carried out by people with mental illness. Despite this miniscule percentage of violence, investigations of police conduct in New Mexico, Ohio and Oregon show that in handling people with mental illness, police exert excessive force leading into violence. A research report called "Mental Illness, Mass Shootings, and the Politics of American Firearms" published in the American Journal of Public Health, noted that at least half of the people shot and killed by the police in Maine "suffered from diagnosable mental illness." And furthermore, a health reported released by the Mental Health Commission of Canada found that police officers are biased and affected by this myth. It said that many police "still subscribe to the notion that mental illness equates to violence and thus, personal risk to the police officer."

Needless to say, when Sanders' dangerously categorized the Republican party's antics as a symptom of mental illness, he was unknowingly following a tired, ableist script that was funded, pushed and regurgitated by the same establishments that Sanders seeks to eliminate. Language matters when discussing issues of mental health. While Sanders' record on progressive issues is notable, he isn't immune from criticism. We should all expect his language, actions and jokes to be consistent with his politics -- and far from the real joke of the Republican debates.