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Mental Illness As a Scapegoat

It's time to take care without losing responsibility.

By Amelia Clare WrightPublished 6 years ago 7 min read

The idea of blaming or using another person to absolve oneself of sin is ever present. From the primitive scapegoating of eliminating humans from a tribe in response to a natural disaster or other inexplicable misfortune, to more modern concepts of blaming subordinates for a business mistake, the scapegoating of humans tends to fall on those whom we consider to be weaker or of less importance than ourselves. However, we often practice scapegoating using ultimately unchanging and superior forces. When there is no secondary person to place the responsibility on, we scapegoat by saying that the event was out of our control. This case can be seen throughout history in the form of religion and faith as humans place blame on a god or higher force when things go wrong. However, today many people find a scapegoat in their own mentality.

Scapegoating is a natural response to a situation. It is connected to our need for reason. Generalizations granted, the act of blaming another person for an event is more prevalent in the male realm of humanity than the female. This need for reason and accountability is connected to the left-brain which handles the sequencing and time-related portions of life. Not coincidentally, this half of the brain is the masculine half, giving men a stronger link to culpability. Obviously, it is not desirable for anyone (male or female) to be the cause of a problem. Men, however, find more links to blame other human beings because of this brain dominance.

The right half of the brain (the feminine dominated half) is more concerned with an overall (everything at once) picture. It is the side that allows us to hear music as one beautiful piece as opposed to various, disjointed tones. This allows women to experience an overall idea of what may be happening in a situation, including the admission of guilt for an event or the realization that there perhaps was no one person to blame. Unfortunately, women are also not quite eager to accept this blame or guilt. Because of this, they founded the idea of using outside (uncontrollable) causes to accuse.

The fact of the matter is that sometimes we have no control over a situation. This lack of control is a familiar fear in humans. We have an inherent need to be able to command a situation. Life’s seemingly unanswerable questions (starting with, “Where do we come from?” and, “What happens to us after we die?” and progressing all the way to “What makes me the way I am?”) have been answered with religion. As time (and science) progressed, faith became more individual and opinion-based. However, a diagnosis is definitive and medical, able to be trusted by nearly every human being. We trust doctors to give us accurate and factual information, creating an easy situation for mental illness to become less of a burden and more of an excuse.

The presence of a mental disorder influences a person. They are slightly different from physical ailments (including those as severe as cancer to those as potentially benign as allergies) because mental illnesses reside in the brain and are able to greatly affect behavior, emotions, and thoughts in ways that physical disorders could never dream of. There is no doubt that mental disorders can affect a person’s personality, however, many people use mental illness to answer the unanswerable question of “Why am I the way I am?” in its entirety, rather than including it simply as a potential factor. This leaves no room for escape from it. Those with depression often feel that they are simply incapable of being happy because they identify so strongly with their illness.

This scapegoating tactic starts with parents. The diagnoses of ADHD in children increased by almost 3% between 2007 and 2011 and not necessarily from an increase in the prevalence of the disease. The average age of diagnosis was seven years old, and 85% of cases come with medication to counteract the behavior. Instead of admitting that a seven year old may simply be a rambunctious child and dealing with the consequences, parents find it much easier to claim a mental defect and create a list of medications that their child needs. This is not to say that no child should be diagnosed with a mental disorder, but rather to point out the degree to which parents use ADHD as an escape from angry teachers. Instead of accepting the blame for their child not paying attention in class, it is more convenient and self-assuring to take him or her to a psychiatrist. This way, parents are not only absolved from being called insufficient parents for not getting their kids to pay attention, but they are rewarded and praised for handling such a “difficult experience” with their child.

This sentiment attached to children from such a young age carries throughout their lives, eventually allowing the child to blame their mental illness for any issues they may have in the same way their parents taught them. This early and prevalent diagnosis of mental illness affects even those who are not medicated as a child. Simply the stories that are told of being diagnosed with a mental illness or the excuses made on account of said illness can teach other children to blame a diagnosis at an early age. It then creates a situation where a teenager or an adult is diagnosed with a mental illness and instinctively uses it as a justification for their mistakes. “I’m too depressed to finish my homework,” or “I couldn’t come to work yesterday because I was overly anxious.” These can be completely valid excuses, but never ones that would be made before a diagnosis.

There’s also the issue of self-diagnosis. A common occurrence in teenagers especially, self-diagnosis is when a person recognizes symptoms of a disease in him or herself (either accurately or not) and then claims to have that disease without a professional opinion. This practice exponentially increases the number of people who believe they have a mental disorder simply because most people don’t quite understand all the specific aspects of each mental disorder. Take Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, for example. The outward behaviors of OCD are easily identified. People may like things to be ultra-organized or very clean. They may exhibit odd habits of counting or performing actions a certain number of times. A large number of people will see this behavior and attribute it to themselves. They wash their hands thoroughly or feel drawn to a certain number and suddenly think that they have OCD. They don’t do much research on the internal workings of OCD. They therefore don’t understand the real taxing mentality of OCD and honestly believe that they have this disease.

This use of mental illness as scapegoating goes so far as to permeate the legal system. Although less than 1% of trials have a successful plea for insanity, it is often claimed by those who may not actually be “insane”. This strategy is also perpetrated through the media. Most fictional television cases include a portrayal of a lawyer asking the defendant if he or she wants to plead not guilty by reason of insanity.

Between those with an honestly diagnosed mental illness and those who simply believe that they have a disorder, mental illness is an incredibly common circumstance in life. It is used as an excuse both in extreme legal cases and in aspects of daily life. Mental illnesses are presented to many from a young age as excuses to misbehave which escalates to include excuses for making mistakes or simply not doing something. Mental illness often replaces religion in the aspect that it is an uncontrollable factor that influences behavior and provides reasoning. Scapegoating through one’s own mentality is becoming an increasingly prevailing aspect of our modern culture. For those of us suffering, it’s time to take responsibility. For those who are not, please don’t ruin things for the rest of us.


About the Creator

Amelia Clare Wright

Amelia is a recent graduate from Emerson College majoring in Communications Studies. She finds passion in language, photography, and learning, and hopes to pursue a life full of all three.

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