Stop Blaming Mental Illness For The Abhorrent Behavior Of Anti-Maskers

Whenever anyone behaves poorly or against the grain of what is considered socially acceptable, many people automatically attribute it to that person being crazy, off their rocker, completely unhinged, mentally ill. There is so much stigma surrounding mental illness that many assume that any unreasonable action or poor behavior must be synonymous with mental illness, because why else would someone behave so badly unless they were crazy and mentally ill.

Our country is currently in the midst of a viral pandemic, seemingly split down the middle. On one side, we have those who fundamentally believe in science, medicine and fact and are willing to take precautions for the safety of all. And on the other, we have those who are trying to politicize the virus, with many touting that the virus itself is a hoax, or no worse than the flu, or simply declaring it not their problem because nobody they know has been affected by it yet. These pandemic deniers, minimizers and anti-maskers have become increasingly fond of video recording themselves as they supposedly “stand up for their rights”, planning strikes against businesses attempting to abide by restrictions put in place for the safety of all. They storm into stores, refusing to wear masks, recording both themselves and the reactions of others, hoping to earn their 5 minutes of fame. They go in with the sole intention of showing their defiance, causing turmoil to businesses, workers and customers alike, and creating a scene worthy of becoming a viral trend.

As we have seen time and again during this pandemic, this type of egregious showboating often backfires, with those who are thumbing their nose at health restrictions ultimately being thrown out of stores and banned, being widely and publicly shamed for their apathy, and in some cases even being fired from their jobs as a result of their very public displays. Yet these bizarre occurrences continue in America, partly because these individuals want to make it fundamentally clear that they believe their personal right to not wear a mask is more important than everyone else’s right to not get sick or die, and partly because they ultimately hope to go viral for their bad behavior, to become infamous on the internet.

Yet whenever someone is called out for their horrid behavior, many people immediately blame mental illness. People assume that in order for someone to do something as foolish as to outright deny a viral pandemic that has infected over 18.5 million people worldwide and killed over 700k in less than a year, let alone to make such a spectacle of themselves by outright refusing to care about others, they must be “crazy” and “unbalanced”, that they surely must be mentally ill.

Often people in this country automatically associates horrible behavior such as this with mental illness, pointing fingers and claiming those involved “obviously need mental help” because their utter disregard for everyone else is unfathomable. Other times, the perpetrators themselves attempt to blame their own horrendous actions on mental illness whenever they are confronted. They cavalierly issue a non-apology, using mental illness as their scapegoat instead of taking any amount of personal responsibility for their own ridiculously irresponsible, ignorant actions. It’s as if they are smirking, shrugging and dismissively claiming they should not be held accountable because they are, after all, “crazy”.

Sadly, much of this comes from the stigma attached to mental illness. It is much easier for many people to assume that anytime anyone behaves despicably, they must be “crazy” and “mentally ill” than to consider that those individuals might just be inconsiderate, attention-seeking people who do not care about anyone but themselves. It is much easier to designate mental illness as the catch all scapegoat for all the wrongs in society than to consider that these people are behaving poorly simply because a portion of our society glorifies their bad behavior.

As someone who struggles with mental illness myself and who actively advocates for the mental health community, I would like to make it very clear that there is an enormous difference between the actions of these people and the mental illness community as a whole. While it is possible that someone who displays this type of abhorrent behavior might also be struggling with a mental illness, mental illness itself is not immediately to blame whenever anyone behaves inappropriately or with malicious intent. People who have mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, ptsd, and bipolar disorder deal predominantly with issues such as self-worth, motivation to accomplish daily tasks, and battling the demons in their own heads and the trauma of their past. NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, could not have put it more perfectly when addressing the myth that being mentally ill automatically means you are “crazy”:

It’s plain and simple, having a mental illness does not mean you are “crazy.” It means you are vulnerable. It means you have an illness with challenging symptoms — the same as someone with an illness like diabetes. While mental illness might alter your thinking, destabilize your moods or skew your perception of reality, that doesn’t mean you are “crazy.” It means you are human and are susceptible to sickness and illness, the same as any other person. (1)

When attempting to attribute mental illness directly to poor behavior, let’s consider the penal system. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, there are currently approximately 2.3 million Americans incarcerated. (2) Yet, according to statistics by NAMI, “Only 5% of violent crimes in the U.S. are committed by people with serious mental illness. The unfortunate truth is that individuals with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators.”(1) Furthermore, “Approximately 20% of state prisoners and 21% of local jail prisoners have ‘a recent history’ of a mental health condition.” (3) Though there are always exceptions, the vast majority of people with mental illnesses are not the least bit violent or otherwise confrontational, they are not by and large out committing crimes. With only one in five people who are incarcerated having any type of recent mental illness diagnosis,and only 5% of those with a mental illness being convicted of a violent crime, being mentally ill is clearly not the predominant driving force behind bad behavior.

Even if someone who is mentally ill were to momentarily lose control and behave poorly and irrationally, they are extremely unlikely to go on grandiose, premeditated video recorded rampages with the intention to upload the fallout later to the internet, screaming about their supposed rights to do whatever they please even if it means harming or killing others in the process. People who are mentally ill don’t normally plan out and intentionally video record their outbursts from start to finish in order to garner internet attention but rather any adverse reactions they may have are typically an unscripted, unplanned, unrecorded, spontaneous result of someone who is struggling to cope with life in the moment.

People who are struggling with mental illness often isolate and shut down. We struggle every single day to concentrate and focus on simple things, to function and accomplish daily tasks. Nearly one in five people, an estimated 46.6 million adults in the United States today, is currently struggling with a mental health diagnosis. Again, according to NAMI, severe mental illness is defined as “a mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder resulting in serious functional impairment, which substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.” (4) In other words, even the most severe mental illnesses are defined specifically by the impairment and limitations they place on the lives of those who struggle with them. Being mentally ill does not typically send people out on premeditated, politically-fueled tirades and crusades to callously violate the health and safety of others for personal validation or internet infamy. If these types of self-recorded outings and outbursts were commonly indicative of mental illness, with over 450 million people suffering from mental illness worldwide according to the World Health Organization (5), there would be drastically more people causing scenes like this all over the globe.

When taking into account that there are 2.3 million people currently incarcerated and only roughly twenty percent of those have any type of mental illness diagnosis, we are looking at roughly 460,000 inmates who are mentally ill. When you further consider that there are roughly 46.6 million people in the United States currently struggling with mental illness, those who are incarcerated and also have a mental illness diagnosis account for less than one percent of the over all mentally ill population. Again, the proof is in the pudding. Over 99% of the mentally ill community are going through the motions of living their everyday lives, struggling with their diagnosis, not out committing crimes or thumbing our noses at laws or restrictions put in place for the safety of all.

We are not gathering en masse or heading out in droves, intent on recording ourselves causing a scene in the desperate hope it may make us internet famous. Many of us struggle to even function at all, let alone make plans even remotely close to this extent. Rather, these are the calculated actions of self-centered, egotistical people who are showing complete disregard and apathy for everyone else, people who place more value in their own temporary fame than in the health of their families, friends, co-workers and neighbors. These are attention-seeking individuals throwing temper tantrums, so hungry for their five minutes of infamy that they are willing to put other people’s lives at legitimate risk just to have their name trending on the internet.

Though you may see the occasional anti-mask sentiment in other countries, no other country has the widespread, reoccurring, largely combative and often explosive or violent issues that the United States has with people being unwilling to tolerate minor temporary inconveniences for the safety of all during a global pandemic. While there are some people in other countries who may disagree with wearing a mask, you don’t hear frequent stories about their citizens recording themselves causing combative scenes like you do in the United States. To date, I have personally only seen one news story out of the UK about protesters recording themselves storming a store and making a scene. The vast majority of those who disagree with wearing a mask in other countries simply organize peaceful protests or hand out informational material explaining their beliefs on the matter. For instance, in late July there was a peaceful anti-mask protest in London attended by hundreds of protesters. More importantly, those who disagree with wearing masks in many other countries appear to be a small minority. The vast majority of people in many other countries have taken a united stance, observed health precautions with little to no issue and have, in the majority of countries, seen cases declining by the day as a result.

You simply do not see the largely hostile and combative anti-mask sentiment to the scale and degree elsewhere that you see in the United States. Only in the United States are we seeing such a ridiculous and reoccurring blowback against common sense during a viral pandemic that has frequently escalated to rage-fueled outbursts and outright violence, with people even being physically assaulted simply for asking others to comply with restrictions and regulations. Only in the United States are we seeing the virus being widely politicized, regularly used and abused to garner people’s five minutes of internet fame at the detriment to other people’s lives. And only in the United States is a bonafide medical condition being used as a catch all scapegoat to garner all the blame for the bad behavior of these self-centered individuals. With mental illness being a worldwide problem, if this abhorrent behavior was truly a direct result of mental illness, these outbursts would surely be widespread worldwide, as well. But this type of disturbing behavior is predominantly an American thing, driven not by mental illness but rather the largely American desire to become famous or infamous by any means necessary, even if it means putting other people at risk.

Whenever a woman shoves her cart through a grocery store while defiantly refusing to wear a mask, recording herself screaming about her rights to do as she pleases other people be damned, or whenever a man records himself causing a scene by screaming that he is under attack in a store because he was asked to either mask up or leave, or whenever a woman video records herself violently attacking a display of masks while proclaiming she has had enough with the pandemic and being told what to do, it goes viral because people cannot fathom others behaving so ridiculously, screaming like petulant toddlers throwing a temper tantrum because they were asked to be considerate of the health and safety of others. As long as these people continue to trend as train wrecks that other people laugh at for their sheer absurdity and willful ignorance, there will continue to be people out there acting out just for the attention that going viral brings. While we cannot stop those people from behaving badly, nor can we stop others from watching their ridiculous outbursts with abject horror, we must stop assuming their behavior is automatically caused by mental illness instead of simply being the result of attention-seeking, arrogant, apathetic human beings desperately chasing their 5 minutes in the spotlight. Often, bad behavior directly correlates to inconsiderate people who care only about themselves, not to mentally ill people. We don’t deserve to be scapegoats for their poor behavior.

1. https://www.nami.org/Blogs/NAMI-Blog/October-2019/Six-Myths-and-Facts-about-Mental-Illness

2. https://www.prisonpolicy.org/graphs/pie2020.html

3. https://namibuckspa.org/education/about-mental-illness/facts-figures/

4. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/mental-illness.shtml

5. https://www.who.int/whr/2001/media_centre/press_release/en/

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