I had a good conversation with a friend yesterday about characters in a play that she’s in, and it got me thinking about the difference between mental illness and strange behavior. She was talking about the character analysis they had done in rehearsal, and how they had spent time discussing what could’ve happened in the characters’ childhoods (they are brother and sister) to make them behave the way that they do. Furthermore, the actors wondered what, exactly, in the characters’ makeup made one react so differently than the other.
Intertwined in this conversation was also the thought that sometimes, people who are otherwise mentally healthy have bad things happen to them, and their reactions to those bad things may be perceived as mental illness, but actually are rational responses to irrational situations. For example, if a woman is brutally raped, she might become afraid of men. To the observer, her fear of men might seem like mental illness, but in reality, that reaction is perfectly reasonable given what has happened to her. It doesn’t mean she shouldn’t work to overcome the fear, or that the behavior is healthy in the long run, but it does not mean she is ill, in the traditional sense. Perhaps, really the difference there is between ‘acute’ and ‘chronic’ mental illness. In this situation, a therapist would be forced to diagnose a condition via the DSM for this person. But, then again, even if you go to a therapist because you get a little down from time to time, they need to diagnose you with a disorder for insurance reasons.
The reason I found this conversation so interesting was I had come out of the play having ‘diagnosed’ the brother with mental illness, and I was assuming that his actions were the result of the illness. So, is he crazy, or is he sane, but behaving in a crazy way?
I seem to get caught up in conversations like this quite a bit. Over the past year or so, I was exposed to someone on a regular basis of whom people are afraid. Not, ostensibly, because she is violent, or even, really, terribly mean, but rather because her reactions and decisions are predictable in their unpredictability. I have spent long hours discussing her motivations with others who were trying to please her, only to counsel them not to bother because, in the vernacular, she is “bat-shit crazy.”
Now, having received my Bachelor’s degree in Psychology, I know all too well that you are not supposed to label people as “crazy,” but the term is in fact an easy out when you don’t have the time, desire, or wherewithal to try and figure out whether someone is actually mentally ill, or whether they just behave that way. It’s best to realize that your energy is much better spent communicating with people who can communicate with you. As I said to my friend of this woman “she’s that crazy homeless person on the street with a knife, and you want to stay far enough away that she can’t stab you to death.”
Recently, Washington’s Governor Gregoire indicated that she supports the “Guilty, but mentally ill” conviction, and this also begs the question: do we always care *why* someone does something?
In the case of the “bat-shit crazy” lady, I really don’t give a damn why she does what she does. I’m not in her family, and I’m not in a position to help her. However, I found myself emotionally invested in the play’s characters, and I would, in fact, like to understand them better.
So, does the fact that I care about fake people more than real ones make me the crazy person? Or is that a rational response to an irrational situation?