You may have seen something over the weekend about Kentucky Senator Rand Paul’s recent comments regarding people receiving Social Security Disability benefits (here’s a pretty good rundown from the Washington Post). His lack of both understanding mental health issues and mood disorders and the absence of empathy are a little bit troubling, considering his role as an influential policymaker, let alone his apparent interest in higher office. Now when it comes to being vigilant about being a good steward of public money I have no doubt he’s doing what he thinks is best policy-wise, and for the moment I have little interest in using this space to debate the intricacies of Social Security policy. But I do want to talk about his seemingly shallow knowledge of mental health and mood disorders.
Senator, let me assure you that people who struggle every day with depression, anxiety, bipolar, etc. aren’t simply “anxious about work.” People like me can suffer from actual physiological symptoms that can impact and limit job performance in very real ways- just like any physical disability can impact and limit job performance. When someone thinks constantly of self-harm or of suicide, perhaps they genuinely cannot perform their duties. Part of me would like to be able to give people the experience of major depression or anxiety so they know what it’s like, but I cannot actually wish that anguish, uncertainty, self-loathing and fear onto anyone. One of the reasons I write this blog though is to do what I can to explain the lived experience of mental health issues to reduce the stereotypes perpetuated, intentionally or not, by people like you, Senator. When you casually align those suffering from mental illness with actual perpetrators of fraud, criminals, you insult us. You perpetuate the idea that our experiences aren’t genuine, that we’re attention seekers and fakers. Do you have any idea how hard it is to seek help and treatment without these added insults? A primary symptom of mental illness is self-loathing. Congratulations for piling on, Senator.
I’m not asking for a statement of apology that allows everyone to move on and sweep this under the rug. I’m asking you, Senator Paul, to take a few moments and reflect on your words and think about the damage they can do. Maybe talk to a few of your constituents who struggle with anxiety disorders, depression or bipolar. Listen to their stories. And choose your words more carefully next time you want to make a point on policy.