Breaking the imaginary fence

Broken brainAt first thought, Amy Winehouse and Anders Behring Breivik have very little in common, other than having their names dominate headlines as front page news for a period in late July 2011. Yet for both of these individuals, the question of mental illness and culpability are significant inĀ  the public discussion on their recent actions.

When Amy Winehouse died on July 23, no cause of death had been established. Nonetheless, her recreational use of drugs became the focal point of public discussion – either directly presumed to be the agent of her passing, or debated circumstantially as a contributing factor. A conflation of blame and pity whispered through the global community, ranging from outrage that more wasn’t done by her nearest and dearest to sadness that it was unlikely salvation of any sort was possible.

When Breivik carried out a mass murder in Oslo on July 22, no motive had been established. Yet bit by bit, news of his political leanings leaked into the public sphere, and soon a profile was being constructed like a psychological jigsaw puzzle that sought to explain how an individual could commit such a vile act.

In each case, the term ‘mental illness’ was thrown about. Sometimes flippantly, sometimes with all of the expertise an armchair psychologist can muster. If not these words, then synonyms were applied. Insane, mad, fucked-up, cracked, lunatic…it goes on. In each case, the actions of these two individuals were deemed to be the work of broken brains.

Conversely, others have found the flipside of this assessment relatively uncomfortable. If they had a mental illness, then their culpability was reduced. If Amy Winehouse’s addiction was a disease, it would suggest she wasn’t fully responsible for her drug abuse. Anders Breivik’s insanity could mean he wasn’t fully responsible for his brutal homicide. After all, aren’t diseases pitiful things?

The dichotomy of broken and normal neurology is deeply embedded in our sociology, paradoxically as both a form of reduced culpability and as a way of discriminating. You’re simultaneously pitied and expelled from the community. Meanwhile, a distinct line is drawn, creating a border between those with acceptable cognitive functions and those whose behaviour is functionally anomalous.

The problem here lies with the concept of blame, which is wrapped up in consequences of retribution and punishment. If Amy Winehouse didn’t have a disease, her decisions led to an outcome that was ‘deserved’. If Breivik isn’t insane, he should suffer severe discomfort for his actions. In neither case is there a pragmatic solution being offered. Rather than trying to understand the minutiae of influences and causes that lead to drug abuse or extremist ideologies, mental illness becomes a simplistic term used to isolate one’s self from undesirable behaviour.

In the end, mental health is the real loser. Variations in brain function that make social interactions difficult, dangerous or uncomfortable for individuals are turned into caricatures that serve not to provide potential solutions, but to make others feel better about their own positions.

Not being a psychologist, or having access to any of Amy Winehouse’s or Anders Behring Breivik’s medical history, I cannot diagnose either one of them. I cannot attribute terms or associate labels to catagorise their behaviour. But I do know that as humans, they experienced variations in neurology that produced actions that are – for lack of a better term – regrettable. In the end it doesn’t matter much as to which side of the imaginary mental health divide they fall on.

Published in: on July 26, 2011 at 4:52 pm  Comments (1)