Stigma. Discrimination. Civil Rights. Human Rights. These are all terms we use in the mental health advocacy community to describe the challenges we face and the goals we strive for. Today, in the wake of the state of Virginia’s execution of William Morva, a man with a long history of mental illness, we talk about human rights.
There is so much we don’t understand about disorders of the brain, and our gravest mistake is pretending we know what we don’t know. In Mr. Morva’s case, questions about his mental health history were raised over and over again, and reports from various experts continuously contradicted one another. What we do know is that this man struggled with severe symptoms of mental illness for many decades. The evidence of this was strong enough that two experts from the United Nations urged Governor McAuliffe not to execute Morva, more than 34,000 people signed petitions backing clemency, and 28 state legislators and three members of Congress expressed support for clemency. So how and why did this happen? Especially in this state where our broken mental health system has led to such such tragedy in recent years -- from a senator’s son dying from mental illness due to inability to access care, to the Virginia Tech shooting -- where is the awareness? Where are the solutions?
In what other area of medicine do we have this type of massive disagreement and ambiguity? Ideally, we’d have a test that could have definitively determined Morva’s brain health. This raises a much broader issue: our failure to prioritize and fund brain research, which is due, at least in part, to the stigma around mental health. This stigma is evident everywhere -- so much so that we often fail to see it at all.
Just this past week mental health was used, in a very public way, as the basis for name-calling and personal attacks, when Donald Trump called Joe Scarborough of Morning Joe, “Psycho Joe.” I think we can all agree this type of name-calling is not what we’d hope for from our Commander-in-Chief, but for a person in President Trump’s position to be using such discriminatory language sets a particularly bad example.
His language is somewhat ironic, given that many are asking questions about Donald Trump’s own mental health and its influence on his fitness to hold the highest office of the United States. Where is the science? Where are the tests to determine competency to hold, arguably, the most powerful position in the world? And in the horrific tragedy of this week, to determine life or death for a man who had decades of symptoms of serious mental illness?
Until we start changing attitudes we won’t see the hope that’s possible and lives will continue to be lost. We recently spoke with Dr. Stephen Hinshaw, a thought leader in psychology who just came out with a book with the goal of more educated awareness around mental health. Another Kind of Madness blends his early experiences of being completely shielded from his father’s serious mental disorder with commentary on the need to change attitudes and enhance access to care. He explained it this way: stigma is when prejudice and negative stereotypes leads to the dehumanization of certain groups. As long as we live in a culture in which barely an eyebrow is raised when the President of the United States throws around terms like “nut job” and “psycho” when describing the mental health of his colleagues we’ll keep failing to take our individual brain health seriously and we’ll continue to deprioritize brain research and dehumanize those with these challenges.
And this brings us back to Mr. Morva, a case of dehumanization to the end. This chilling Facebook Live video of the press conference after his execution speaks volumes. Does revenge really help anybody? Does it advance the cause? Does it stop the violence? As Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking says, the death penalty is more about us than anything else. This case makes it clear: we as a society view mental illness as a moral failure, and this misguided belief is what allows us to justify punishing people who have a health condition.
Stigma, discrimination, and stereotypes persist, blocking us from pursuing preventative care, keeping individuals in need from getting treatment, and keeping much-needed funds out of brain research. The debate over President Trump’s mental health and our inability to test it, the President’s own consistent use of language that stereotypes and dehumanizes, and the execution of a man who showed clear signs of a severe brain disorder: it’s all connected. In many ways, we remain in the dark ages when it comes to brain health, in our attitudes as well as our understanding of brain disorders and their impact on human behavior and cognitive functioning.
Tragic cases like William Morva’s need to serve as impetus to take action now. Despite heroic efforts, his life wasn’t able to be spared. Let’s work to make sure that we as a society are never in the position of deciding someone’s fate ever again. Let’s leave saving lives to the medical community -- they’re best equipped for that responsibility. The responsibility of ending them, however, belongs to none of us.