I’m pretty active on Pinterest, and sometimes I’ll create new pins related to older blog posts. Recently, I created a pin asking whether people in mental health crisis should be handcuffed, and linked to a post I’d done on that topic and the stigma inherent in it.
Once in a blue moon I’ll get a comment on one of my pins. Commenting doesn’t really seem to be a thing on Pinterest, and I’ve never left a comment on anyone’s pin. Anyway, a few minutes after I pinned the graphic for the handcuffing post, I got this comment:
Yes. It’s for their safety as much as the officer’s. The officer has the right to go home to their family and be as safe as possible.
Beyond my initial WTF reaction, there were a few layers to unpack in that comment.
First off, there the across-the-board “yes”. Not “yes if…” or “yes, but only…”; just “yes”, full stop. The police attend a lot of mental health-related calls, and that would be a whole lot of handcuffing. That unqualified yes suggests that this should be a routine practice because crazy people are routinely scary-crazy.
Next we move on to “it’s for their safety as much as the officer’s.” It’s rather patronizing to suggest that impositions on basic freedoms are for the scary-crazy person’s own good. If we look through a trauma-informed lens, handcuffing is likely to create harm. But stigma doesn’t see that; stigma sees “us” and scary-crazy “them”, and there’s a massive border wall in between preventing any empathy from dribbling through.
“The officer has the right to go home to their family.” How would a mentally ill person get in the way of this? By killing or maiming them? If anyone’s going to be dying in a cop vs. scary-crazy person encounter, what do you think are the chances it’s going to be the scary-crazy person who ma be wanting to die? Isn’t that what we scary-crazy folks do?
“The officer has the right to… be as safe as possible.” How about the right of the mentally ill person to be as safe as possible? Being handcuffed without having committed a crime doesn’t sound all that safe to me. And it doesn’t seem like that much a leap to extend that to justifying police brutality by saying the police had a right to feel safe, so why not harm/kill anyone who’s scary for any reason, including the colour of their skin?
How to respond?
My approach online has been, for the past part, not to engage with people who appear to be ignorant by choice. It seems like that would frustrate me without actually accomplishing anything in terms of change. This comment, though, didn’t strike me as intentional ignorance. I wouldn’t be surprised if she has a partner in law enforcement whom she worries about.
My response to the comment:
Any other medical condition you’d like to see people handcuffed for? Heart attacks, perhaps? Or is it just mental illness? In that case, there’s a name for that: stigma.
I can’t think of any other type of health condition where people are liable to be handcuffed without having committed a crime or been violent. But when stigma’s in the picture, mental illness crisis looks less like a medical emergency and more like a behavioural problem. On a side note, that’s part of why I’m not a fan the American term “behavioural health.”
The original commenter didn’t reply to my comment, which is fine. I do hope, though, that it made her think critically, even just for a minute, about her point of view.
The bigger picture
The dangerousness stereotype associated with mental illness is quite deeply ingrained in our society. This person’s comment clearly buys into that stereotype. Yet most people who hold this belief don’t recognize what it is; they see it as fact rather than stigma.
That’s what’s so insidious about stigma. For people who don’t know better, those stereotypes seems reasonable, and it becomes easy to rationalize acting on the assumption that those stereotypes are valid.
And as with any other kind of social privilege, people with good mental health can’t see the problem when they look through their lens. To really see stigma, you need to look through our lens, the crazy-scary person lens.
That’s why we need to keep talking, keep telling our stories, and call out stigma when it feels safe and productive to do so. Then instead of seeing stereotypes, more people might actually see us.
You may also be interested in these posts:
You can find more on mental illness stigma on the Stop the Stigma page.
A Brief History of Stigma is the upcoming new release from Mental Health @ Home Books. It looks at the nature of stigma, the contexts in which it occurs, and how to challenge it most effectively.
Visit the book page for tips on how to be an effective advocate.