It seems like a cruel joke. People who are already in disadvantaged positions are, on top of that, vulnerable to brain disorders. Then, the society that produced the disadvantage (poverty, racism, sexism, etc.) stigmatizes the person for having an illness.
I want to be transparent here. I am diagnosed with schizophrenia. I live openly with my illness. I am also trained as a philosopher. I had my first psychotic break in graduate school, where I was studying ethics and political philosophy. My doctors told me to apply for disability, but I wanted to work. After a series of various jobs and hospitalizations, I finally applied for—and was granted—SSI. The day I was granted SSI, I cried. It had been an extremely rough ride.
One of the jobs I applied for, and kept until I was hospitalized, was as a case manager. As a case manager, I was trained to treat people in a holistic way. I was to look at each client from a variety of perspectives. But, also, I was trained to advocate for justice for my clients. That’s what I want to focus on here.
Theory and Practice
I want to set aside the theories of justice we learn about in school for a minute, however important and interesting they are. Although my academic training is mostly in philosophy, I have also done an assortment of different work. I have had time to think about—and live out—the issues I am discussing. So I’m not going to apply any certain theory of justice to the problems I am discussing. Besides, Bernard Williams would think applying a theory to a problem the way that is often done would be really uninteresting. And, of course, I want to be interesting.
I am also not going to get into a debate about psychiatry versus psychology. Brain versus mind. I think training as a case manager was good experience for me in diffusing that dichotomy. I am trained to deal with both medicine and psychotherapy, as a case manager. And I am trained to think about the soul and the brain, as a philosopher.
However, I am going to refer to schizophrenia as a brain disorder in this paper. Because that’s what it is, whatever, ultimately, causes it. There is something going on differently in my brain when I am psychotic. I’ll set aside issues of dualism, materialism, and so forth, and let other philosophers better trained in that area deal with those issues.
I am also going to set aside cultural differences. Although there has been interesting anthropological work on the differences in the expression of psychosis, there is also consensus that psychosis occurs in every culture. What I will focus on, however, is treating psychotic disorders in the United States. That’s where I live and am best trained.
“What happened to you?”: Social Causes of Schizophrenia
We know that social factors can be a cause in brain disorders. For example, Holocaust survivors are at an increased risk of developing schizophrenia. There is, we may say, only so much a mind can take.
This does not discount other factors involved in developing brain disorders. However, I want to discuss various abuses and forms of disadvantage at play in developing psychotic disorders.
Prior to taking up research specifically on psychotic disorders, I did a great amount of research in Native Studies. Native Studies is an interdisciplinary field, and I had to learn and read in many different fields—anthropology, psychology, sociology, history, law, criminal justice, philosophy, to name a few. In the social and psychological work I read, it was clear that the effects of colonialism had an impact on the minds of indigenous people. They are at an increased risk for many illnesses, including brain illnesses.
This informed my early notions of brain illness: that it’s mostly social. So, when I became ill, I didn’t know what caused it. (It could be, however, that I have, in fact, experienced a lot of hardship, and was prone to developing a psychotic disorder.)
I eschewed psychotropic medications, and psychiatry in general. I was held, for periods of time, in hospitals and told to be “compliant” (to take medications). I sought out therapy, however, and had a few wonderful counselors. Counselors, I knew, treated things differently. They are not medical doctors shoving, as it were, pills that caused me horrible side effects down my throat.
Eventually, however, I was given an antipsychotic that both managed my symptoms and didn’t cause side effects. I am now a firm believer in taking the appropriate medication at the appropriate dosage, along with therapy, case management, and so forth.
One of my good friends, who, for reasons to protect them, will remain anonymous and vague, works for the military. This is not a delusion. They really do work for the military, and they are not the kind of person you would imagine an ethicist would associate with. The fact is, it’s their job to kill people efficiently and effectively. They are not a soldier. They make the plans that others carry out.
Let’s just say that this person knows how to inflict all kinds of torment on people. (This does not carry out into civilian life.) This person once asked me the most important question anyone ever asked me about my illness: “What happened to you?”
They wanted to know what kind of torment, abuse or disadvantage I experienced that made me have schizophrenia.
I wanted to tell them that I was a teen parent, who had to fight for her education, and was treated very badly by, especially, conservatives as a teen parent. I was told I was going to Hell, and funding for my high school, which was my joy and hope in the world, was always threatened.
I wanted to tell them that I had experienced sexism in the field of philosophy that made me very uncomfortable.
I wanted to tell them that I experienced a lot of sexual harassment when I was working as a teaching assistant.
I wanted to tell them that academia is not made for parents, especially teen parents.
I told my counselor instead.
There are at least three kinds of stigma: (1) Self-Stigma, (2) Other Stigma, and (3) Stigma by Association. The literature discusses each of these.
Self-stigma is when a person internalizes the stereotypes and “othering” the society holds about them. They may think they are, in fact, a bad person for having schizophrenia. They may think they are at risk for committing violence. They may think they should be punished, or closely watched. This can cause a person to have low self-esteem, live “in the closet,” and not seek treatment.
Other stigma is when people who do not experience psychosis have negative views and discriminate against people with psychotic disorders. This can include not wanting to date a person with schizophrenia, not wanting to have conversations or be friends with people with schizophrenia, and not wanting to work with people with schizophrenia.
Stigma by association is when people who are associated with a person with a psychotic illness feel shame about having that person in their family, school or workplace. They may lack education about people with brain disorders, and there is evidence that proper education about these issues can lessen stigma by association.
Stigma can lead to discrimination by making people treat one differently. As someone who has dealt with gross amounts of stigma, I can say that people have treated me as a potential threat, a wild-eyed disarray, and needing to be “compliant” and tamed. This, even when my symptoms, which have never been threatening, were at bay. Stigma leads one to “see” you differently. It leads to bias in how your actions are interpreted.
I have learned to deal with stigma by living openly and “calling it out.” I risk all kinds of things doing this, but it’s the only thing I know to do.
Justice at Both Ends
We may live in a world where luck is involved, but there’s luck and there’s luck. We have the ability to change our world, to make things better for other people and ourselves. We have the ability to reduce the amount of negative luck people experience. For example, if we alleviated poverty, there would be fewer brain disorders, just as if we reduce child abuse, there would be fewer cases of child PTSD. If we want to reduce the amount of brain illness in the world, we need to be committed to justice.
At the same time, there are people who do and will continue to suffer. For those people, we need justice at the tail end—we need justice for people with brain disorders. This means making people feel OK with accepting government benefits, increasing government benefits so that people with brain disorders are not living in poverty, and, of course, reducing stigma.
I hope I have made a case for justice before and after psychosis.