Even for ‘progressives’, mental illness is a joke

At last night’s debate, Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders perfectly illustrated why efforts to improve the lives of people with mental illness run into so many roadblocks: It’s still “OK” to make fun of the illness.

“We are, if [I’m] elected president, going to invest a lot of money into mental health,” Sanders said. “And when you watch these Republican debates, you know why we need to invest in mental health.”

Funny stuff, cheap joke and all. Hillary Clinton joined in the laughter.

“It referenced people with mental illness explicitly as a means to bash Republicans, and it perpetuated the idea that those with mental illness are inherently dangerous,” Vox’s German Lopez wrote today.

To be clear, the stigma is wrong. As one example, people with mental illness aren’t disproportionately likely to act out violently: Only about 3 to 5 percent of violent acts in the US are carried out by people with serious mental illness, while about 4.2 percent of adults in the US experience a serious mental illness in a given year that substantially interferes with or limits their major life activities. And people with mental illness are more likely to be victims — not perpetrators — of violence.

But even without the public safety concerns, there are compelling arguments for spending more on mental health care: It can save money that goes to the criminal justice system today, and getting people into care can save lives — by preventing the risk of suicide that comes with some mental illnesses — and prevent a lifetime of untreated torment.

None of which comes as news to Sanders, which makes his “joke” all the more upsetting. He’s one of the few politicians who’s made mental health care a national issue.

On Forbes today, Emily Willingham compared the acceptance of Sanders’ “joke” to the reaction when Donald Trump made fun of a reporter with a physical disability months ago.

Never mind that 25% of the US adult population at any given time will have a mental illness. Never mind that services are particularly inaccessible to Americans of color, many of whom access them at about half the rate of white Americans. Never mind that that investment Sanders promises is so badly needed because half of all chronic mental conditions begin before age 14 yet treatment delays because of access barriers can mean years — even decades — of waiting for interventions.

That’s not a funny situation. And it’s not funny or lighthearted to mock people who have these conditions and can’t get help for them, and not even smirk worthy to do so using a predictable and jejune playground insult not worthy of my 9-year-old’s abilities. Indeed, comparing the actual playground antics of the Republican field to the experience of having a mental illness raises their immature behavior to something sober and serious while simultaneously diminishing the seriousness of how we treat — and clearly, also talk about — mental health in this country.

Willingham says far worse than Sanders’ “joke” was the fact people laughed.

“Because even though not everyone might be ready to take ableist jokes seriously the way they would, say, if Sanders had made an overtly sexist or racist joke ― again, societal norms matter in all this, and the norms relating to ableism are dismal at best ― nobody should run away from paying the criticisms some serious mind,” Chris Tognotti writes on Bustle.

Related: Five reasons Bernie Sanders lost last night’s Democratic debate (Washington Post)