It’s time to stop using mental illness as a political insult

It’s time to stop using mental illness as a political insult

From Where I Stand — For those of us living with mental illness, stigma and prejudice can all too often permeate every part of our everyday lives. When Owen Smith labelled his Labour leadership rival a “lunatic” last night, he showed a complete disregard for some of society’s most vulnerable people.

Theoretically, politicians are supposed to represent and protect their constituents in Parliament and elsewhere – particularly those constituents who are oppressed, vulnerable, or members of a minority group. So it’s disheartening – though not entirely surprising – to hear Labour leadership candidate Owen Smith refer to Jeremy Corbyn as a “lunatic”.

At a campaign event in Hammersmith, West London, last night, Smith said that “what you won’t get from me is some, you know, lunatic at the top of the Labour Party”. Though Smith has now apologised, claiming that the dig was in reference to himself and not Corbyn, the meaning of the statement was clear: “lunatics” are incompetent, and Smith is not.

It’s not the first time Smith has seemingly attacked people for what he perceives as vulnerabilities. In July, Smith was forced to apologise for saying he wanted to “smash Theresa May back on her heels” – an oddly violent image, and a gendered one – and was widely criticised for describing himself as “normal” for having a wife, presumably compared to what he saw as the abnormal civil partnership of his then-rival Angela Eagle.

Smith’s latest misstep is a very blatant example of the kind of casual and thoughtless slur that mentally ill people are used to hearing about themselves and others. Words like “nutter, “mental” and “crazy” are thrown around carelessly and almost daily, often by people who otherwise seem to have an awareness of problematic language.

Ex-girlfriends are described as “crazy”; disliked colleagues are “psychos”. The insinuation of such language is that mentally ill people are out of control, unable to make rational or reasonable decisions or in some other way are incapable of taking responsibility for, or even understanding, their actions – none of which is true.

These slurs are becoming more and more common in an increasingly bombastic political landscape, too. Smith’s insult is not unlike suggestions that Donald Trump has some form of undiagnosed mental illness or neurological disorder – people have sincerely called him a “clinical narcissist” or suggested that he’s some kind of psychotic fantasist. A psychiatrist even told Vanity Fair that he’d be showing his students videos of Trump as the perfect example of someone with narcissistic personality disorder.


It’s not analogous, obviously – both his politics and his personality are a million miles away from Corbyn’s, for one thing. But at heart, there’s the same suggestion: that someone who has mental health problems is deficient or unfit to take on responsibility or power.

It’s also frustratingly obfuscating in that it completely distracts from Trump’s politics. Though they’re obviously abhorrent, and Trump himself is clearly a deeply unpleasant man, they have absolutely nothing to do with his mental health. Some people’s politics are both outrageously, offensively bad and flamboyantly expressed – but that’s not because they’re mentally ill, it’s because they’re bigoted.

By painting Trump as someone with a debilitating personality disorder, what we’re saying is nobody could possibly hold or express these views without having some kind of mental illness: a fact that’s demonstrably untrue when you take a cursory glance at the widespread support he’s received across America. The people who attend his rallies in their thousands aren’t joined in some kind of psychotic mass delusion – they’re racists.

It’s a handy get out clause, too, that allows us to go without examining the true meaning or consequence of particular political figures or ideas. We can only tackle bigotry if we examine it properly, understand its etiology, and we’re not going to do that if we write it off as some kind of mental defect.

Discriminatory language doesn’t exist in a vacuum, either; in a recent survey from NatCen, 44% of people stated they’d be uncomfortable working with someone with mental health problems; 78% said they’d be uncomfortable having someone with mental health problems marry into their family. 90% said they’d be unhappy for someone with mental illness to look after their children. This stigma is persistent, damaging and dangerous, and language like “nutter” and “lunatic” only strengthens it.

Smith obviously wasn’t trying to diagnose Corbyn with a specific mental illness, but in his failed ad hominem attack what he has done is use a handy linguistic shortcut to suggest that Corbyn is somehow unfit to lead – a shortcut that he may not have meant as an insult to the mentally ill, but that invariably is. The implication of such language is indubitably negative, and so we continue to associate mental illness with weakness, with catastrophe, with ineptitude.

Most mentally ill people are competent, intelligent, successful people who have no problem making responsible judgements or remaining in control of jobs, relationships or lives. We are not “nutters”; we are not unable to make good decisions, we are not unable to take on positions of responsibility, and it’s insulting to suggest otherwise.

Even those of us who are not high-functioning, whether temporarily or permanently, deserve respect and support, not derision. If Owen Smith wants to properly take on Corbyn, he’d be better off starting with his politics and leaving mental health out of it. If he doesn’t, he won’t just lose the leadership battle – he’ll also be responsible for entrenching stigma even further in the cultural and political conversation.

Emily Reynolds is a journalist who writes about mental health, technology and culture. Her first book, A Beginner’s Guide To Losing Your Mind, is out in 2017. Follow her on Twitter.

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