“Mental Illness,” “Mental Disability,” and Self-Presentation

[The following is part of an assignment for a class on the Rhetoric of Difference and Diversity.]

One thing that struck me first when I was reading both “Mental Disability and Other Terms of Art” and the chapter from Mad at School, both by Margaret Price, was the term “mental disability.” In “Mental Disability and Other Terms of Art,” Price “use[s] mental disability to indicate a broad range of conditions and impairments that affect the mind,” including “mental illnesses,” “cognitive disabilities,” “autism spectrum disorders,” and “learning disabilities” (118). I had heard of the term “neuroatypical” (which I knew was related to mental function and somewhat more associated with autism), but I had never heard of “disability” being associated with mental illness. I think part of this is because of the link between mental illness and creativity that I have mentioned before, whereby great artists and writers who struggled with mental illness are also viewed as unusually gifted (and those who struggle with mental illness but are not gifted or recognized in the same way are pushed aside and institutionally forgotten). Even in the case of my own father (who committed suicide without giving any hints or signs beforehand), when I was young, I was told that he died of a “brain disease”; the fact that he was a highly intelligent computer programmer who worked on the Hubble Space Telescope before his death gave me no reason to challenge the link between being “gifted” and being “mentally ill” after I found out the actual cause of his death when I was older.

But I want to think about Price’s point that “[t]hese sorts of disabilities are always and inevitably caught up with an individual’s rhetorical power” and that “persons with these kinds of disabilities share common experiences of disempowerment as rhetors” (118). Price also notes that “efforts to find collaborative language often come from activist groups of people with mental disabilities or have been diagnosed as such, while efforts to diagnose, divide, parse, and separate tend to come from clinicians” (119), and “suggest[s] that mental disabilities are shaped and lived through rhetorical processes including diagnosis and resistance; that they appear unpredictably and are not always legible; and that, above all, coalition is essential among people who live under the rubric of the disabled mind” (122). I suppose that I’m curious what this means in terms of moving forward as a coalition, as a member of a smaller group with a specific mental disorder (someone with a “mental illness” and/or “learning disability”), and as an individual with a mental disability. This returns to ideas of intersectionality: does working with a coalition risk that individual neuroatypical persons may have a harder time receiving treatment (in the form of medicine or therapy) if they want or need it? If neurotypical/neuroatypical is a false category, is that automatically an argument against medication to treat “mental disabilities,” even if that medication can stave off suicidal ideation or help a person with ADD focus at work? Do people who seek medical treatment for a mental disability become less a part of the neuroatypical community because the medication that they take compensates on a biological level for that neuroatypicality? I suppose that I’m worried that umbrella advocacy groups in this case, though useful in some places and situations, may be harmful if they aim to completely erase the differences among different kinds of neuroatypicality (and also lose sight of other factors such as race and sex which also have material effects—a black woman with a mental disability who faces racism on a regular basis and has adjusted her coping mechanisms accordingly may not only receive a different diagnosis from a psychologist than a white woman might, but might respond differently to therapy and even medical treatment if the full cause of her struggles aren’t understood). I disagree with Ian Hacking’s notion that mental disabilities ‘provoke banal debates about whether they are “real” or “socially constructed”’ (qtd. in Price 122, emphasis mine): those are legitimate debates, but I think that having them perhaps requires a more specific grounding in case studies in order to allow us not just to develop richer language, but also to create a series of conditional suggestions to help individuals as well as groups know how best to proceed when given a certain set of obstacles.

Work Cited

Price, Margaret. “Mental Disability and Other Terms of Art.” Profession (2010): 117-123. Web. PDF.


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February 21, 2013 · 1:30 pm

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