Why Bernie Sanders Should Apologize For His Mental Health Joke

Mental illness was not among the main topics discussed by Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders at the most recent Democratic debate in Flint. Nevertheless, the instances in which it arose were the two moments I remember best.
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Mental illness was not among the main topics discussed by Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders at the most recent Democratic debate in Flint. Nevertheless, the instances in which it arose were the two moments I remember best.

The first was when Gene Kopf, the father of one of the survivors of the recent Kalamazoo massacre, asked the candidates what they would do to stop the epidemic of gun violence in America. "The man who shot everyone... had no mental health issues reported," said Mr. Kopf. "I don't want to hear anything about tougher laws for mental health... because that doesn't work."

As someone who's been diagnosed with ADHD and anxiety for most of his life, I've become sensitized to people invoking "mental illness" as an explanation for gun violence. Lurid headlines of mass shootings saturated the news in late 2015, inciting the usual throngs of armchair psychiatrists to come out of the woodwork and yell psycho (particularly if the shooter was white).

In this context, Kopf's words represented to me a much-needed public reminder that people with no documented history of mental illness commit a vast majority of violent crimes -- including mass shootings.

The second mention of mental health came much later, when Bernie Sanders trotted out the following laugh line: "When you watch these Republican debates, you know why we need to invest a lot in mental health."

The reason this quip really rubbed me the wrong way is not because I found it particularly shocking; language that associates non-neurotypical people with moral inferiority and violence remains rampant and largely unquestioned in virtually all social circles, including those that purport to care about social justice.

The left-wing habit of calling conservatives crazy or "wingnuts" is as vogue as calling violent people crazy or "lunatics" -- something Bernie Sanders did multiple times during the debate. Even people with psychiatric diagnoses are taught to essentialize a relationship between mental illness and violent tendencies as an objective matter with no bearing on how we're perceived and perceive ourselves.

That sentiment isn't inconsequential: 1.2 million people with mental illnesses are currently languishing in prisons and jails. That's 10 times the number receiving treatment in state hospitals.

Perhaps the ultimate irony is that violence against mentally ill and disabled people is a national crisis. People with mental disorders are over twice as likely to be assaulted, mugged and raped than the general population, and untreated people are about 16 times more likely to be killed by police. People like Robert Saylor, John Berry, Samuel Harrell and Natasha McKenna regularly lose their lives in America because, among other reasons, their mental illnesses and disabilities mark them as deviant.

Yet while Americans of all political stripes can be counted on to psychopathologize the latest high-profile shooting suspect, we're unlikely to even hear about a non-neurotypical person who has been murdered. Our investment in the myth of the psycho shooter prevents us from conceiving of mentally ill people as victims -- which, in turn, makes it more likely that they will be, and remain invisible.

That doesn't stop pundits or the public, however, from arguing that somebody has to be sick in order to shoot up a school full of innocents -- or, for that matter, to elect Donald Trump.

Their reasoning is circular: They kill because they're ill, they're ill because they kill.

It's like saying someone's sleeping because they're not awake; if murdering or pandering to racists makes you "mentally ill," the term is essentially meaningless.

Ironically, this has been the most common defense I've seen of Sanders' statements -- it was just a meaningless, off-the-cuff remark that might betray his generation's less-than-punctilious approach to language. But "mental illness" is not just some empty platitude about what absurdities or monstrosities someone's capable of. It refers to millions of human beings, many of whom have much more to fear from so-called "normal" society than the other way around.

It's worth noting that in the cases of McKenna and Harrell, who are both Black, no one was charged. The corrections officers who tased and beat McKenna to death later compared her to a "demon" with "superhuman strength," a statement that has as much to do with her race as her schizophrenia. The relationship between structural racism and ableism is both extensively documented and extremely deadly. But in the world of Sanders' joke, the real reason we need to invest in mental health services is because we need to help out those poor, sick-brained Republicans who went off their meds and sadly ended up powerful architects and beneficiaries of oppression.

From a mainstream liberal standpoint, it makes sense to thrust responsibility for ableism squarely on Republicans. After all, "mental illness" constitutes a crucial component of their argument against gun control and for increased militarization and social cuts -- it's a handy method of blaming individuals for systemic blight when you can't lump them into a group like "terrorists" or "thugs."

But the American left, when calling for greater gun restrictions, is always complicit and rarely self-examining. To puff ourselves up, we spout rhetoric about background checks explicitly targeting "the mentally ill" and smear our opponents with accusations of mental instability -- we call them "gun nuts." This bolsters the prevailing sentiment that non-neurotypical people are not valuable members of society, but ticking time bombs that need to be neutralized.

One of Sanders' prized lines in the gun control debate was "people who should not have guns in America should not be able to buy guns in America." Just who is he talking about when he says this?

I have no interest in tearing down Sanders. In our morally bankrupt, money-saturated political system, I like Sanders about as much as I'm currently capable of liking a politician running for President of the United Sates. I support him more than Clinton, who notably laughed at Sanders' joke and has given me no indication that she would be better on mental health.

But I don't owe Sanders my support. He's the one in the position to prove to me that he deserves it, and while I don't expect him to rectify the problem of systemic ableism, one small very simple thing he can do to demonstrate he cares is to apologize for his remarks.

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