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 Barack 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 suffers 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, 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 is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.