Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Mental Illness a Political Construct

I've said it before -probably here- and I'll almost certainly say it again. Mental illness is a political statement, at least in part. Since we can define neither mental health nor normal with any precision, it stands to reason that we don't know in any measurable way what unhealthy or abnormal is.

How abnormal is too abnormal? Is your beningly loopy Aunt Matilda crazy or does she just not care what other people think? Who gets to decide? What are the consequences of that decision? Can people be forced into treatment? There are actual legal answers to those questions. And there are ethical answers to those questions. And the two aren't necessarily the same.

For example, feminists, menopausal women, women with postpartum depression and even the occasional woman guilty of no more than being uppity have all been court-ordered into treatment at one time or another. And it's happened again.

Carol Fisher was affixing anti-Bush posters to telephone poles in Cleveland. Local police officers ordered her to stop and to remove the ones she'd already attached, which she did. She was asked for ID, which she didn't have with her. The police officers then put her (possibly quite violently, depending on which side of the story you believe) face down on the sidewalk, and put their feet on her back until she couldn't breathe. She was then handcuffed and shackled and taken to the police station.

Her "crime" apparently was continuing to call out to passersby, describing her posters, as she was being handcuffed. One of the officers, Fisher says, threatened to kill her, and told she was certainly going to the psych ward.

Which turned out to be true. She was convicted of two counts of "felonious assault of police officers" even though the witnesses for the prosecution admitted they had seen no assault. Rather, their only claim was that she "had issues with authority". She is currently in the psych ward of the Cleveland jail, and on suicide watch. Her side of the story is here: World Can't Wait.

Treatment and incarceration can go together -and sometimes they should. But surely that ought to be an extreme position, since it involves curtailing civil liberties rather noticeably. Can anyone explain to me how this situation qualifies as extreme?

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