Serious Question: What Is Mental Illness?

May 24, 2013  |  

Like many others, we watched Amanda Bynes appear in court this morning, tugging on her Halloweenish wig before she was whisked off to a psych ward. Immediately, the office, my co workers and I, started playing psychologist, talking about what could be going on with her, the child star we’d grown up watching on television. A couple of us were certain that what Amanda is going through right now is probably something mental. After all, Amanda Bynes had a very successful career back in the ‘90’s and was able to keep her composure for over a decade afterward.  Something had to have happened. My coworker and I speculated that Amanda was suffering from some type of mental illness.

But one of my coworkers couldn’t be certain. She questioned us, how do we know it’s mental illness? Aside from her family saying that she was bipolar and had stopped taking her medication, what evidence was there that she had suffered from some type of mental dysfunction.

I argued that the type of behavior she’s been exhibiting is consistent with someone whose thinking is off.

Then my co worker brought up a good point asking, if behavior like Amanda’s is due to a mental illness, how are we supposed to hold people accountable for their actions?

I argued that just because someone has a mental illness, doesn’t necessarily mean that’s carte blanche to behave any type of way. Somehow Chris Brown’s name came up in the situation and I said that based on the evidence in the way he attacked her, biting, punching, all while maintaining control of the car, blacked out in a rage, shows that he was out of his mind. Another co worker argued that because Chris had grown up seeing his mother being abused, his conditioning led him to believe that type of behavior was acceptable. I still say believing that behavior is appropriate is a form of mental illness. Not being able to control your anger is a mild form of mental illness.

And I don’t mean that because his mental state was altered, that he deserved to get off scott free.

Essentially, I was trying to argue that mental illness is not as uncommon or “other” like the media would make it seem. Any one of us could snap at any moment. Our brains our constantly receiving signals, reacting to hormones and processing information that will ultimately affect our behavior. An altered mental state doesn’t mean that we’re going to live in that state permanently. There are varying degrees of mental instability. And while someone who is depressed or schizophrenic or suffering from some form of dementia shouldn’t necessarily be held accountable for their actions, there are altered states of mind that we can control and should subsequently be willing to suffer the consequences.

But that’s just my opinion. The truth is the mind is still such a mystery that it’s all just theory at this point.

What does mental illness mean to you? When is it appropriate to hold someone responsible for their actions despite mental instability?

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