Barnhart Media

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Not many people think of mental illness as a disability. Most people, of course, seem to think of it as a moral failure of some kind, which is a major problem (stigma, baby). But in general, we think of a disability as something explicitly physical: blindness, paraplegia, MS, etc. An inability to use the body as designed by evolution.

The brain is a part of the physical body. That’s why “mental” illness is a bit of a misnomer. We are learning that the brains of those with mental illnesses are not healthy, functional brains. Depression, for example, is being found to result in a significant shrinkage of the hippocampus, the part of the brain most associated with forming new memories.

So in the same way that the loss of mobility due to spinal cord damage is considered a disability, we have to also consider mental illness a disability. In exactly the same way.

But it’s easy to spot most people with a physical disability: they’re in a wheelchair or using a cane or moving in awkward motions; the symptoms make themselves very apparent. I dare you to look into a normal crowd at the movies or a mall or on the street and spot the person with depression or bipolar or anxiety or even schizophrenia. At most, a person with a severe mental illness who is not being satisfactorily treated (“off his meds” is the derisive term we’ve grown too comfortable with) can be spotted as they talk into the air.

I’ve lived with depression almost my entire life, and it’s clear to me today: I am disabled. I cannot live a normal, functional life without medical care of some kind. I have had almost none of the care, hence the endless nature of my disability. In terms of medical treatment and support, I’d have been better off getting hit by a car and paralyzed than I’ve been with my brain’s invisible damage.

A broken brain is a disability. Let’s begin there. Once we do, we can focus on mental illness as a physical ailment and not a matter of attitude, will, sinfulness, and the other dehumanizing pronouncements those with mental illness have endured throughout the centuries.

A final aspect of disability: The physically disabled have been doing great work to educate the rest of us about ableism: the belief that a lack of physical disability is the standard by which we measure people and create our societies. Ableism in terms of mental illness is even more pernicious because so many people associate mental illness with sin, bad thoughts, personal failure, etc. 

You cannot pray your way to mental healthiness.

You cannot will yourself to mental healthiness.

You cannot logic yourself to mental healthiness.

You cannot use the mind to fix the mind anymore than you can “walk off” a broken leg.

Mental illness is a disability. And ableism directed at the mental ill is ignorant and cruel.

T.A. Barnhart