Je Ne Suis Pas Mental - The Difference Between Freedom of Speech and Stigma

With so much talk in the news recently about freedom of speech, it really got me thinking. If everyone should be entitled to free speech why do I get so wound up if someone calls me mental? Or bat sh*t crazy? Or a head case? And all the rest of it… I don’t want to go too deep into the Charlie Hebdo incident and why people are now tweeting Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie, but it does make me think about the difference between freedom of speech and being offensive. So, why can’t people call all those with a mental health disorder hurtful names? Why can’t they take the mick?

It is 2015. A new year and a time in which racism, sexism and homophobia are all seen as big no-nos. In fact, I’m willing to bet that if I made a racial slur I would be kicked straight out of the Celebrity Big Brother house and be called all sorts of names on Twitter. Yet, if I were to call someone dangerous because they have schizophrenia or mental because they have borderline personality disorder, who would tell me off? I know that the big charities and mental health advocates would certainly have something to say about it, but most people would probably just continue on with their day. Isn’t it my freedom of speech to be able to call these people what I want? Well, actually, it isn’t. It is called stigma and it is becoming more and more worrying every day.

It is my freedom of speech to call someone a benefits scrounger
It is now commonplace to see someone getting fired from work for having a mental health disorder, or being called a benefits scrounger for claiming benefits for depression. I have experienced both of these types of stigma first hand. However, these stories will barely make page 18 in a newspaper. These stories will be brushed under the carpet because it is so commonplace. Plus, it is my freedom of speech to call someone a benefits scrounger if I want to, isn’t it? What people fail to recognize is that it is a form of discrimination; just like when women couldn’t vote, when being gay was a crime, and when ethnic minorities were seen as lesser human beings. It is discriminating against someone for something that is not their choice. People don’t choose to be depressed, they don’t choose to have a mental health disorder.

With so much research going on into mental health, it can be hard to work out why exactly 1 in 4 people will experience a disorder. One minute we’re reading people get depressed because of circumstances in their life, then it is because of a chemical imbalance in the brain, now it might even be because people are allergic to modern life. What all of these ‘reasons’ have in common, however, is that it is not anybody’s fault; and trust me, I have had to come to terms with this in my own slow recovery.

Where do we draw the line between freedom of speech and being plain offensive?


The worst crimes occur in the name of religion and extremism, but people who are diagnosed and take care of their health shouldn’t be stigmatized for acknowledging what they have and how to cope. It shouldn’t be looked down on and a person’s character should not, as it often is, be associated with the stigma surrounding the labels they carry.

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Freedom of speech cuts both ways. You can counter offensive speech by speaking out against it or in Charlie Hebdo’s case making fun of it. The great strides of the Gay community are testament to this. Mental illness stigma is a tough one to crack not because of free speech, but silence.

I know I’m too busy trying to keep my symptoms at bay while keeping my job to speak out much. And you feel your reasoning and your rhetoric will always be challenged because you are admitting that your brain is not functioning at 100% from the get go. Elyn Saks is great and all but she’s no Harvey Milk. Maybe when I’m more comfortable in my life, I’ll come out.

Unfortunately, it’s a more interesting story when someone like Britney Spears or Amanda Bynes is symptomatic than when they are doing fine. And the Huff Post is just as guilty at perpetuating Mental Illness stigma as the rest of the media, so I’m finding this all just a bit rich.

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Freedom of speech does not excuse you from the basic rules of decency. Society has its penalties for people who are offensive.