Opinion: Simple caring now seems controversial

June 9, 2013


I cannot write this the way I want. Doing so would invade the privacy of too many people. But I can’t be silent, either.

Last week, you see, President Obama spoke before a conference of mental health advocates at the White House. It is necessary, he said, to remove the stigma of mental illness and make sure “people aren’t suffering in silence,” that they know they are not alone, but are supported by the rest of us as they face this challenge.

It would seem a plain vanilla thing to say. But in this endless era of smash-mouth politics, nothing is plain vanilla anymore.

So one Neil Munro, a “reporter” for the right-wing Daily Caller website, duly took exception. Under the headline, “Obama urges public to use government mental-health programs,” Munro in essence accused mental health professionals of making up illnesses. “In recent decades,” he wrote, “the professionals have broadened the definition from severe, distinct and rare ailments, such as schizophrenia and compulsive behavior, to include a much wider set of personal troubles. Those broader problems include stress and sadness, which are medically dubbed ‘anxiety’ and ‘depression’ by professionals.”

Munro was having none of that. “Americans,” he wrote, “have typically responded to stress and sadness by urging stoicism, hard work, marriage, prayer and personal initiative. ...”

In other words we were self-reliant. We toughed it out. And if I could write this the way I want, I would tell you in detail about a friend who was self-reliant. She toughed it out. Right up until she shot herself.

If I could write this the way I want, I would gather people I know who suffer from the types of diseases Munro finds “real” — dissociative identity disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia — and I’d let them describe for you the stigma that attaches even to those sicknesses. The notion that mental illness — any mental illness — should be toughed out is asinine. Would you tough out diabetes? Would you tough out cancer?

It is a statistical matter of fact (one in five of us suffer mental illness in any given year, said the president) that this touches many of us. So I suspect I am not the only one who has stories he cannot tell and names he cannot call. On behalf of those unnamed people, our family members and friends who daily struggle with crippling disorders they did not cause and do not deserve, let us call Munro’s writing what it is: cruel sanctimony.

If his name sounds familiar, it is because last year, he made news for heckling the president during a Rose Garden address. Though ostensibly a “reporter,” Munro was shown in photographs with his hands in his pockets and neither notepad nor tape recorder in evidence.

Which made it hard to see how he was “reporting,” and suggested he was less a member of the Fourth Estate than another ideologue playing dress-up, a fresh emblem of political divisions so broad they can no longer be bridged. So broad that even things we once all agreed upon — for example: reporters don’t heckle presidents during speeches — can no longer be taken for granted.

But what the ideologue playacting at journalism either does not know, or does not care about, is that this is not a game. There is a real life consequence to spreading ignorance about matters of health. As the military deals with record suicide rates, one shudders to think of the soldier, afflicted with post-traumatic stress disorder, who will read Munro’s scribblings and feel affirmed in his belief that seeking help is somehow unmanly. As our parks fill with the homeless mentally ill, one sighs at the thought of some daughter reading this and believing her dad chose to be that way.

These are our people, said the president, and we should support them. Self-evident truth. Plain vanilla.

And Lord have mercy. Even that’s controversial now.

— Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. CDT each Wednesday on www.MiamiHerald.com.


jafs 4 years, 11 months ago

While I appreciate what Pitts and the president are saying, I think there's also a concern about "stigmatizing" normal emotions and reactions.

Recently, there was a change made that allowed for only a couple of weeks of sadness after a death of a family member before people would be diagnosed with depression. That seems very odd - anybody who's lost a family member knows it takes a lot longer than that to get over, and that one can be sad about it for years, and that's a normal reaction, not a psychological disorder.

We don't want to get to the point where everything is a mental health disorder, unless you're happy and cheerful all the time, do we?

jafs 4 years, 11 months ago

I believe it's the other way around.

Before the change, folks who were still sad weren't diagnosed with depression, and afterwards they are.

Armstrong 4 years, 11 months ago

This article read more like a beef Len had with another reporter. Pitts squealing about integrity is pretty laughable.

tomatogrower 4 years, 11 months ago

Well since you didn't read the article, let me explain. Most of us with friends and family have known someone who refused to get mental help, because of the stigma. In my own experience that has led to all kinds of problems from taking drugs, including alcohol to violence towards their loved ones. I know 2 cases where it led to suicide. As Pitts points out these problems might be solved if the stigma of going to a psychologist wasn't so great.

Of course, I am probably much older than you, Armstrong, so I have met more people and maybe I have a bigger family and a wider circle of friends, so maybe you have never experienced this problem, but I also bet it has a lot to do with empathy.

Ron Holzwarth 4 years, 11 months ago

2 sounds very low to me. Until last month I knew 5 people that committed suicide that I know of, not counting my Dad's cousin. And last month another friend stepped in front of a freight train. So that's 6 or 7, and I'm losing track. Sometimes I deal with so many losses pretty well, and other times I maybe spend too much time thinking about what it could have been like if things had been just a bit different.

There's a good discussion here:

verity 4 years, 11 months ago

This is a very complex subject and there are so many misunderstandings---part of the reason we need better education, not less---and more research, not less. Is there some boundary between mental illness brought on by a physical malfunction and that brought on by our mental state?

On the one hand, I've known people who seem to use their diagnosis (sometimes self-diagnosis) as a crutch and excuse. Sometimes lifelong medication is seen as the only answer when perhaps the person does need to get over it and get on with their life. But I haven't walked in their shoes, so I really don't know. I do know that I have gotten myself out of some very dark places. Sometimes you don't need a psychiatrist to tell you what the problem is, you just need to be truthful with yourself.

On the other hand, I've personally experienced what ignoring mental illness does and how the problems get passed down through the generations. "If you're right with God, you won't have mental illness." This from a person who refused to take the medication his doctor prescribed and obviously had/has serious problems which were very destructive to other people. I ended up taking myself completely out of the situation, as there was no way I could fix it by myself and I got no cooperation from other people who adjusted to the situation by becoming dysfunctional themselves.

And therein lies one of the big problems of mental illness---it becomes an integral part of the workings of the unit and anybody who decides they're not going to play the role the group has assigned them is a threat and must be either gotten rid of or reintegrated into the dysfunction.

In my opinion, lack of education plays very much into people not being self aware.

Liberty275 4 years, 11 months ago

Education is good, as is taking the stigma out of mental health problems, but as we have seen in the past, democrats aren't happy with education. They want to limit your soft drink to 20 oz, make you wear a seat belt and tell business owners they can't smoke in their own business, even if nobody else enters the building.

Simple caring is controversial because it very often turns into legislation that further limits the freedom of American citizens.

All the great ideas in the world won't help as long as we don't trust you.

voevoda 4 years, 11 months ago

Republicans, too, aren't happy just with educating the public. They pass laws interfering in women's most reproductive health decisions and dictating what may and may not be said in a doctor-patient relationship. I'd say that the Republicans' interference is much more serious than the Democrats, because it's so easy to get around the regulations you name, Liberty 275. You can buy 2 10 oz drinks, and get your 20 oz that way. You can not wear your seatbelt--lots of people don't--and just pay the small fine (a "tax" for the privilege of risking that you might become disabled and then need public assistance). You can smoke outside your business, and that way not impose your habit on your employees. But if a woman needs to terminate a pregnancy safely and the law forbids it, what is she supposed to do?

I fail to see how passing laws requiring that medical treatment for mental health be considered the same way as other sorts of medical treatment is in any way an intrusion on anybody's liberty. Instead, they are an expansion of liberty, and you ought to be in favor of it. Your distrust, Liberty275, is getting in the way the exercise of liberty by the rest of us.

tomatogrower 4 years, 11 months ago

Ah yes. Thomas Szazs, the psychiatrist who felt most people were wrongly committed to mental hospitals. Which gave all the politicians and excuse to shut down those hospitals, and now they really hate having them on the streets, and hate homeless shelters, and want to cut funding for the in the in home care that's suppose to replace the hospitals. All in the name of freedom. Free to commit suicide. Free to live on the streets. Free to be used and abused. Free to shoot up schools. And they said nothing about requiring a law to require mental treatment. I think they are talking about removing the stigma of mental health. How many marriages could have been saved, if they had gone to couples counseling? How many suicides could have been avoided? But no, you're suppose to tough it out.

jonas_opines 4 years, 11 months ago

Speaking of integrity, did Pitts ever publicly bet that he would stop writing if one of the candidates in the last election lost, only to not acknowledge it when he lost his bet and continue writing anyway?

Pastor_Bedtime 4 years, 11 months ago

An excellent point. Someone in that situation would display zero credibility ~ and would cause readers to discredit all he wrote, which was already the case.

FloridaSunshine 4 years, 11 months ago

??? jonas...why are you "talking in circles"? Why not just quote exactly what Pitts said, when he said it, and the candidate(s) he was referring to?

And, you, Pastor...I would need a lot more information than you and jonas are giving to discredit all Pitts writes...and here you are saying that was "already the case". I have agreed with Pitts many times...and disagreed with him at other times. Please be more clear on what you are talking about before trying to demean a person's integrity. To accuse someone of zero credibility is HUGE...so, please, you and jonas need to offer exact evidence instead of the sorry sort of insinuations you both are using.

I'll be waiting for the exact information. Thank you.

verity 4 years, 11 months ago

Jonas was being sarcastic. It wasn't Pitts who did that.

Pastor_Bedtime 4 years, 11 months ago

The comment was not in reference to Pitts, but instead in response to a poster whose comments about "integrity" contradict his actions here.

Leslie Swearingen 4 years, 11 months ago

Here's my thing. There are those who sincerely believe that they have good jobs, nice homes and families because they have chose those things. They need to take a good look around at all those who have helped them to get to where they are in their lives. Those who believe they have never received any help are loathe to help others.

The brain is extremely complex and we are just beginning to learn how it affects and even causes emotions and thoughts. Think about it, brain, mind, emotions, spirituality, how are these created and how do they work together? How do those around us, what we hear and what we read affect who we are and what we believe.

An illness is an illness, if you need medication for either, please take it.

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