Saturday, 17 June 2017

Mental Illness And An Ableist Society

In his last conversation, after telling the reporter that he has Bipolar Disorder and Depression, Amir Zaki forbids him to make this information public. This is because ‘admitting you have problems is problematic for this society. All I have to do is appear ‘alright’ and hide the darkness in my soul, and the sponsors will love me! It’s pro-business you know.’ This ‘pro-business’ notion of favoring an individual who is more 'able', one that does not have ‘problems’ that might get in the way of business, is the essence of Ableism.

The Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines Ableism as ‘discrimination or prejudice against individuals with disabilities’. Before explaining the discrimination, it’s important to further expand the definition of disability because normally people have a very narrow conception of it. Normally when you mention disability, the images that will come to most people’s minds are related to a physical disability such as loss of a limb or vision. However, disability can be cognitive or mental as well, and this includes a whole range of impairments such as Bipolar Disorder, Schizophrenia, Depression, and Borderline Personality Disorder. In response to these impairments, the response of a typical Ableist society is that these problems can be ‘fixed’. The advice around that fixing would sound like this: ‘Stop over-thinking’ ‘Everyone goes through this and comes out, so pull yourself together’ or ‘why do you take things so seriously, just chill with us’. If you are unable to ‘fix’, then it means that there is something fundamentally wrong with you. That is where the linguistic aspect of ableism comes into play, in which they would label the person in words ranging from ‘crazy’, ‘retard’ to ‘eccentric’ ‘Pagal’ ‘Zehni Mareez’ and ‘Abnormal’. This is where people, both at the corporate place and in your personal life would start denouncing and marginalizing you since your difference in perceiving and reacting to the world makes you neither a good corporate employee nor a good friend that you can hang out with. Notice that always, a negative connotation is attached with this sort of disability.


It’s no secret that mental illness is excessively stigmatized in our society. Seeking help for this condition is something that most of the patients have to do with utmost secrecy and anonymity. This is a problem in itself. In order to survive and thrive with this condition, one needs to have a certain support group apart from undergoing therapy and medication. That person would also need certain concessions in his or her workplace. The condition has to be made public if one is to find the social support that this condition demands. Yet the very act of making this public can be an economic suicide, as Amir Zaki’s last conversation clearly shows. The corporate world makes no modifications or exceptions for individuals suffering from a mental illness, even if they are as talented as Amir Zaki. As Mark Fischer wrote in his book ‘Capitalist Realism’, ‘It does not seem fanciful to see parallels between the rising incidence of mental distress and new patterns of assessing workers' performance.’ The eventual consequence of this attitude results in a very real constraint in one’s financial resources, the one in which you struggle even to pay your apartment’s rent or take your mother to the hospital. In an Ableist society, depression can lead you to poverty. But the fall does not stop here. Numerous studies have shown that people living in poverty are twice as likely to suffer from depression. Depression breeds poverty and poverty then becomes the fertile ground for the seeds of Depression. The cycle becomes vicious, and there is little that one can do to ‘fix’ it.
Mental illness only becomes a disability because of the society that fails to take into account the special needs of those individuals within its social and economic fabric. It becomes a disability when corporations fire you or refuse to sponsor your ventures once they learn about your condition. It becomes a disability when in places like Pakistan, mental health facilities are a joke. I was talking to a psychologist recently and she told me that most psychologists make a diagnosis within the ten minutes of the first session without probing further. A common enough attitude is found among psychiatrists who heavily medicate their patients, trying to ‘fix’ them. Both these attitudes reflect an approach in which the social reasons behind mental illness are sidelined in favor of dealing only with the symptoms. Medically assuming that mental illness is caused by a ‘chemical imbalance’ has some clear benefits for pharmaceutical companies since it drives the multi-billion dollar anti-depressants industry. This is not to deny that mental illness does not have chemical roots. However, to excessively focus on that is adhering to the model that proclaims that mental illness, that ‘neurological imbalance’ is to be ‘fixed’.

Ableism has to be fought on all grounds. It has to be fought in relationships between individuals in which those deemed as ‘normal’ by the society ought to check their privilege and should refrain from isolating and demonizing the mentally ill. It has to be checked within corporations who should structure their workplace in a way that supports those employees that might have this condition. But more importantly, we need educational institutes to make policies that facilitate students diagnosed with this condition. Only then can we create a society that is fair to everyone and not only to those which it deems to be able. Only then can the Amir Zakis of the future be able to produce great music endlessly without caring much about what people label them or from where the next month’s rent would come.