When Mental Health Activism Turns Dangerous

They come out from the woodwork whenever something big happens.

It could be another mass shooting, terrorism, a suicide that shakes a community.  Usually, it’s something that rattles the world they live in, making it unstable and confusing.

I’ve started to call them the “Mental Health Opportunists”.

These folks, for the most part, have good intentions, I think.

They’re aware of the reality: mental health institutions, the mental health literacy of the average American, and the overall awareness that mental illness is an illness as real as a physical one, are all woefully below what they should be.  Due to that, people are suffering.

I know that I do, in my own way.  Small things, big things.  The fact that when I worked full time I had to add mental health days off to my physical health days off.  The fact that I have to get really great mental health coverage if I want to be able to pay for the kind of treatment I need.

There are others who have it much worse than me.  People who truly can’t afford treatment.  People who don’t have support networks, people who understand what it means to suffer from a mental illness.

These are the people that many of these Mental Health Opportunists want to help, I think (half of them, I’ll get to the offer half later).  They see a big event, and they see a chance to increase awareness, increase acknowledgement of what they or the people close to them are going through.

So they see home-grown terrorists blow up a marathon, then go on a shooting spree throughout a city, and they start to scream “Mental illness!

Blog posts spread like wildfire, Facebook images, whatever it takes.

They see a person like Adam Lanza shoot up a school, calculatedly shoot tiny children, shoot his mother, and they immediately scream “Mental illness!

These people are dangerous.  They’re dangerous because they are creating a counter-productive narrative of what it means to be mentally sick.  Often, they are plain wrong, or they don’t have enough of the facts to make an assessment.  For example, a psychopath doesn’t suffer from a mental illness.  It’s a personality, inherent and unchangeable.  He has full control over his mind, his faculties.  He is logical.

And yet, we’re often quick to heap the word “mental illness” on such people.

Even worse, it spreads the myth that all mentally ill people are not responsible for their actions. Which is, of course, not true.  Mental illness works in degrees, not absolutes.

True, mental health comes into play whenever something as extreme as murder or suicide comes into play, but what the Mental Health Opportunists have done is turned it into a blanket term, something without nuance, without taking into account the many factors that result in the tragedies that surround them.

It’s easy to do, and it creates awareness for a cause, because people are:

1. Looking for easy answers to complicated situations

2. Hyper-aware of any news/opinions about a subject that they are wrapped up with in the moment (remember watching and rewatching the cable coverage of the Twin Towers collapsing over and over for the whole of 9/11?)

And so it’s an opportunity to these Opportunists.  But like many activists, they’ve allowed themselves to either purposefully or accidentally consider their agenda more important than the actual matter at hand.

The result?

A situation that will eventually result in a case of a story of “crying mental illness”, over and over until the people just start tuning it out.

“Yes, yes,” they’ll say, “mental illness, mental health, whatever.”  And that will be the answer and they will move on.  Like the word “crazy” mental illness is quickly becoming a blanket term for not being in control of our faculties at all, of having absolutely no responsibility for our actions.  It’s become a way to find an answer that allows us to have a simple villain (the mental health world, the world in general, for not doing enough for those with mental illnesses) instead of a complicated one (the people who committed the act, who take years and years of research to truly understand, if ever).

This has resulted in plenty of awareness around the subject but little actual help to people who suffer from mental illness themselves.  Creating an image of a hopeless mentally ill person creates a victim mentality, one that implies there is no help out there.  Creating an image of a completely broken mental health system (as opposed to one that is simply in its infancy as both a system and a science) creates an atmosphere that says that even if it were possible to get help, it’s impossible to actually get.

I’ve recently realized another problem that is beginning to result in the wake of the Mental Health Opportunists.  I actually realized this when one of my own most popular pieces, “Robin Williams Didn’t Kill Himself” was linked to as an explanation for the suicide of an ex-ultra-orthodox Jew named Faigy Mayer.

In that piece, I argued that it’s time we start to accept the idea that mental illness is a physical disease, no different than heart disease or cancer.  And that for some of us, this disease can be terminal.

I still believe that with all my heart, but I wondered, when I saw my post being shared in a situation that I felt was completely inappropriate, if perhaps I myself had been a Mental Health Opportunist when I wrote the post.  Maybe not the worst, I understood the nuances of mental illness when I wrote it, and had written other posts on the subject that painted a more nuanced picture of suffering from a mental disease.  But nevertheless, I had written about the subject before I knew the whole picture, and I painted a picture that could be misconstrued, as it was in the case of Faigy Mayer, as an argument that there is nothing we can do before someone commits suicide to help prevent the tragedy.

Regardless of whether or not I was, the reason this person shared the article is what mattered to me more.  It was a clear attempt from an orthodox Jew (I am an orthodox Jew myself as well), to attempt to clear any and all orthodox Jews, including Faigy’s own community, of responsibility for her death.

It had become clear quite shortly after her death that Faigy was not mentally well.  She suffered from what some of her friends said was severe depression.

(It kind of makes me sick to bring up this subject, to write about it again, after I have already let out my heart about it, and after this poor young woman’s death has already been sensationalized by everyone from orthodox Jews to the mainstream media. But this needs to be addressed.)

And so suddenly, a huge group of orthodox Jews, many who I am sure with all my heart were not activists for mental health or the mentally ill, suddenly became Mental Health Opportunists.  “She was mentally ill!” they cried, “Nothing could be done!”

A particularly sickening blog post, and now expanded as a Haaretz article, by Rabbi Avi Shafran, an orthodox rabbi who didn’t know Faigy, has had no contact with her friends, and is not a mental health expert or a mental illness sufferer, has been spread by these new Mental Health Opportunists.

These are Opportunists without good intentions, or at least with less good intentions than the ones who are trying to advance the cause of mental health and illness awareness.

They are Opportunists, and Rabbi Avi Shafran is the most egregious among them, who are using the clarion call of the good-hearted Mental Health Opportunists to make an argument that is utterly inaccurate, an attempt to shift responsibility, and incredibly dangerous.

Like the mental health activist Opportunists, they are again spreading the myth that when someone is mentally ill, there is nothing that can be done.

But they are spreading more myths.  Or rather, they are spreading omissions.  Omissions from the story of what it means to be mentally ill and how to get better.  They omit the reality that familial support is essential to those who are mentally ill.  That communal support is almost as important.  That the only way to prevent more suicides is not to turn a blind eye from our responsibility but to take on more, to look deeply into what our society can do to prevent them.

Worst of all, they omit the reality that mental illness is treatable.

In essence, these Opportunists have used the tragic death of a young woman to protect themselves and their communities.  Not even their community, but one that is known for its extremism and its lack of support for those who leave it.

These are the New Mental Health Opportunists, those who think they have good intentions, hopefully, but who are subconsciously (again, hopefully) manipulating the narrative of mental illness to fit their agenda, and to promote tribalism instead of communal introspection.

I promise you that this won’t just happen in the orthodox community.  I’m sure it’s already started in others, although I am not as aware of them.  And if it hasn’t, it will.

We mental health activists, us Mental Health Opportunists, have unwittingly created a false narrative, and one that needs to be eradicated and addressed with more solid facts, nuance, and introspection than we have up until now.

It’s true, there will always be horrific narratives being spread like the fact that mental illness can never be terminal, like the mirror-image of my post by Matt Walsh on Robin Williams.  That does not mean we need to resort to the same tactics.

It’s important, if we true knowledge and not just “awareness”, to be spread about mental illness for us to start writing how it is physical in all ways.

Physical illness also markedly improve with familial and communal support.  Physical illnesses also can be treated.  Physical illness can also be prevented, or lessened, by a commitment to a healthy lifestyle, both physically and mentally.  Physical illnesses also don’t always have the best solutions, but we must never give up on trying to find the treatment that works for us.

All of this is the story of mental illness and mental health that is not being discussed, both by the good-intentioned and the ones who do not fit that description.

It is time to provide substance to our discussion.  It is time to not just speak about what it feels like to be depressed (as so many beautiful viral posts have done), but to write about how we ourselves or others have overcome the obstacles depression has thrown at us that have now led us to live “normal” and balanced lives.

To be a Mental Health Opportunist is not in and of itself a bad thing.  It’s when we ignore our larger responsibilities that we create an atmosphere that is unhelpful at best, a killer at worst.

It’s up to us now to use the opportunity we’ve created to turn the dialogue’s tide.  To inspire, to give tools, and to combat those that have used our message against us.





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