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Why Political Ideologues Attack the Mentally Ill

Any appeal to mental illness amounts to an ‘excuse’ for bad behaviour

Philosopher James Burnham once said, ‘an ideologue – one who thinks ideologically – can’t lose.’ This gritty claim captures the gist of someone who has fallen victim to the spell of ideology. Anyone familiar with the hawkish nature of social media will know how much weight Burnham’s claim carries, and how obstinate people can be defending their deeply-held convictions.

But why should ideologues worry us? Are they not the sort of people who disinter the right information and stand on the right side of history? A real-life example of the problems with ideologues is the extreme case of terrorism. Take the case of Hassan Khalif Shire Ali: after stabbing three people in Melbourne’s CBD in November last year, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison pontificated about the act, arguing that the terrorist’s motivation was caused by ‘radicalisation’. For Morrison, any attempt to point to mental illness as a contributing factor – which of course is never a justification, but a contributing factor – is an ‘excuse’.

While recent studies, such as the one released by European Psychiatry, continue to show a link between terrorism and mental illness, the Australian Prime Minister discredits any such link, calling it ‘the same, lame, old, tired excuse for not dealing with this problem’. Of course, this kind of rhetoric is not just touted by Aussie Prime Ministers.

If generalising sounds far-fetched, recent studies support the claim that large numbers of people discredit mental health as having any significant – or any – causal impact. Indeed, 48 percent of people think that mental illnesses are excuses for bad behaviour. All of this should be of particular concern when the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that an estimated 25 percent of the global population is affected by a mental or behavioural disorder at some time during their lives. This mental and behavioural health issue is said to contribute to 12 percent of the global burden of disease and is projected to increase to 15 percent by the year 2020.

With increasing information unearthed by psychologists concerning mental health, it seems that stigma towards people with mental illness is ebbing. After all, more of us are in a better place to forgo narrow-minded judgments by understanding the very intricate province that is mental health. So where does the problem of the ideologue enter? In short, abandoning – or even revising – beliefs are frenetically problematised when deeply value-affirming and connected to political ideologies. This is represented in the ‘political ideologue’, someone who spasmodically jumps down the throats of those who might disconfirm their beliefs and someone who neurotically calls into question the credibility of the source of the information or facts.

In many cases, resistance to challenges to beliefs is rational. For example, if you’ve always performed well at university, getting a “C” on an essay should not lead you to abandon your belief that you are usually a competent student. However, in many cases, people cling to beliefs that logically should be abandoned, or at least modified.

For those who have a mental illness, many an appeal to their condition when they transgress amounts to an ‘excuse’ according to the ideologue. Rather than considering the mental illness, a transgression is explained by the perpetrator’s putative ‘sexism,’ ‘racism,’ ‘elitism,’ etc. Presented alternative accounts to their beliefs, new information is ignored, choosing to “double down” on their original convictions. This phenomenon is what psychologists term belief perseverance.

Rather than considering the mental illness, a transgression is explained by the perpetrator’s putative ‘sexism,’ ‘racism,’ ‘elitism,’ etc

Understandably, people have pointed out that ideologues share a particularly negative attitude towards the mentally ill. Studies support this view. A glaring example of the ideologue’s belief perseverance is climate change sceptics–those who argue that human-influenced climate change is either a fiction or a flat-out lie. Standard here is the view that scientists working in climate research are either under a misapprehension or flat-out fudging their results to procure additional funding. Of course, the science is pretty conclusive on the topic (with the data being easily attainable and verifiable, and supported by 97% of climate scientists).

Regrettably, the proclivity to favour ideology over facts appears to be intrinsic to human psychology. Fortunately, awareness of our biases makes overcoming them increasingly possible, which is undoubtedly indispensable to wane – and eventually eradicate – mental health discrimination. Of course, we all need to learn how to think, not just what to think. As Thomas Paine once said, ‘the mind once enlightened cannot again become dark.’ This position is eerily accurate when negative societal responses to people with mental illnesses may be the single most significant barrier to the development of mental health programs worldwide.

If humankind is becoming more ideological, with ideologues increasingly occasioned, one cannot help but see the future as implacably dire. This direness is especially true when considering the dilemma the ideologue presents for the implementation of effective climate change legislation. Moreover, it is also true when considering the need to eradicate the discrimination surrounding mental illness. You might agree with this narrative, in which case you will hopefully deem this article accurate and enlightening; you might also disagree, arguing that the author is an ideologue.

Karl Leech

Writer based in New York City, US

Karl Leech has 3 posts and counting. See all posts by Karl Leech

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