Commentary: Hidden Depths

Eli Erickson, Columnist

Oppression has been a major topic of discussion in the media these past few years; it’s practically impossible these days to go onto any major news outlet and not see something about it as a main headline. You’ll hear stories about protests, both peaceful and violent, against movements that, at least outwardly, seem to be suppressing the rights of people including ethnic minorities, as well as women and people within the LGBT+ community.These stories focus on people attempting to break certain status quos that are considered negative for the social image and reputations of the demographics that they belong to. The protests and riots that broke out in major cities across the nation, as a result of George Floyd’s death due to an arrest gone horribly wrong is just one of the most prominent recent examples.

However, while many people have united under the cause of speaking out in defense of women, and people considered ethnic minorities or queer, there remain one particular group of people who  have consistently failed to receive similar support from the public – those who identify as having neurological disorders, which includes mental and mood disorders, among other things.

Let me ask you this –  when was the last time you heard a story about people with autism, down syndrome, or other mental disabilities , being abused or exploited by mentally “normal” people on the news? Or when you heard or saw a large group of people rally against the injustices faced by the mentally disabled in American society? In fact, when was the last time you’ve heard anyone of considerable political influence address the oppression faced by those with neurological disorders?

If it took you a minute or two to remember such an instance, then I am not surprised. Even beyond matters such as racial and gender politics, one of the biggest flaws of the human perspective is our tendency to base our worldviews based only on what is outwardly obvious, especially given how most people are largely concerned about living their own lives and trying to get by, and thus see themselves as lacking the time to invest into deeper things such as the state of society or politics. 

Most people in our society look at a mentally atypical people’s behaviors and categorize them in a split second, practically out of instinct. When we see someone with depression apathetic to their surroundings, we usually write them off as being “angsty” or “bored” or “self-pitying”. When we see someone with down syndrome, we usually write them off as being “slow” or “retarded”, even when we’ve been informed that word is no longer acceptable. When someone with autism asks to have a question or statement repeated so they can understand it better, we usually sigh in exasperation and write them off as being “scatterbrained” or “unfocused”. 

And not even other mentally ill people are innocent of this; I say this as someone with autism, who many times in the past has had many of the same thoughts about other people with neurological disorders- again, largely out of pure reaction- even when I knew it was wrong of me and even when I knew that it wasn’t entirely their fault that they were like this, and it’s only within the past couple of years that I’ve succeeded in dialing this “instinct” back even a little. 

This brings me back to the importance of the position “superficial perception” holds in the media. News sources and figures of great social influence are heavily reliant, and heavily exploitive, of this simple reality to control the opinions and beliefs of others. Every human being- regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, and yes, mental capacity- is born with the innate flaw of superficial perception, and the sad truth is that many who overcome this use it to control others who still struggle with it. 

How do people exploit this mindset, you may ask? Either they give the bare minimum of information required and throw in implications that would serve their interests and let people fill in the blanks with snap judgements based on prior claims born from similar caliber, or they rely on the social influence that they already possess. Then, they expect people to trust their words purely out of the idol-worship that they have for them. Usually, it involves both. 

One factor that contributes to society’s perception of people with mental issues is the media’s portrayal in news stories, television, and film; it’s easier to simply say that a kid shot up a school out of spite or “because of those damn video games,” instead of actually looking into the circumstances that may have caused those things. It won’t matter if the school shooter was dealing with unaddressed violent bullying or paranoid schizophrenia that prompted them to the actions they took; as soon as the hot-button word “mental illness” is introduced into the scenario, no other details seem to matter. Since mental illness and the public expression of it, at its surface, can easily be twisted into being “stupid” or “insane” or “violent”, that’s what most media sources do.      

Unlike many demographics that are considered “oppressed”, mental abnormality or illness transcends race, gender, or identity; it doesn’t matter if you’re male or female, an ethnic majority or minority, straight or queer- there are people from all of those groups that grapple with the complications that mental disorders burden them with. Even with this in mind, however, people with mental illness still fare better here than they would in places such as China or Russia.

In reality, we’re not as different from people we label as being “mentally ill” as we often claim we are- even from a purely scientific standpoint, everyone is “mentally abnormal” to a degree by virtue of our developmental fluidity as human beings. While some examples are more extreme than others, all of our minds work differently from one another, with it all based on a unique combination of our genetics, circumstances, and experiences molding our capability to process and express thought and emotion.

How we can fix this? I’m not confident that we fully can. The most I can say we can do is to simply not fall for the same traps that most people do- and again, that means being smart. Remember that nothing is ever just as it seems- everything has its reasons for happening, and every reason usually comes with a reason of its own.   

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