I learned something new yesterday about the shameless little man who runs the Family Research Council: Tony Perkins does not love anyone who is suffering from mental illness.
It’s possible that Perkins does not even know anyone who is suffering from mental illness or, at least, that he thinks he doesn’t know any such person. Because if he did know such a person, and if he cared about them even just a little bit, just enough to begin thinking about what their world is like, then he couldn’t have allowed this to be sent out in his name: “Should Private Businesses Be Forced to Pay for Sexual Disorders?”
The perpetually alarmed Perkins is alarmed this time over the Paul Wellstone Mental Health and Addiction Equity Act, which says that if you’ve promised to provide health care for your employees, then guess what? You have to provide health care for your employees. And you don’t get to break your promise just because your brain hasn’t yet figured out that it’s an inseparable part of your body.
Now I happen to think that the American model of employer-based health care is, itself, insane. It arises from the convoluted, wasteful and inefficient Rube Goldberg device we’ve constructed in an attempt to pretend that a free market in health care is theoretically sound. But given the existence of that uniquely American patchwork employer-based system (“you tend the sick with the health care system you have, not with …”) the Wellstone Act is necessary. It reasserts reality in the face of the fantasy that brains and bodies are somehow neatly and easily divisible.
I would understand if Perkins opposed all such mandates, and not just those involving treatment for mental illness, based on some free-market principle. I would disagree — on the facts as well as the ideology — but I would understand. But that’s not what Perkins does here. What he does, instead, is attempt to portray the concept of mental illness itself as illegitimate. He mocks the idea that mental illness refers to anything real.
He tries to show that mental illness is either trivial or merely perverse by cobbling together a weird little list of diagnoses from the DSM-IV:
The bill uses the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) as the basis for identifying conditions that must be covered. Among the more troubling diagnoses incorporated into DSM-IV are: Circadian rhythm sleep disorder (jet lag type); Caffeine intoxication; Sibling relational problem; Substance-induced sexual dysfunction; Gender identity disorder; Necrophilia; Transvestic fetishism; and Pedophilia.
The two parts of Perkins’ little list are efforts to make mental illness seem either trivial or repugnant.
Let’s take the supposedly trivial first. Things like jet lag and caffeine intoxication are included as diagnoses in the DSM-IV because they can mirror the symptoms of more substantial problems and thus need to be either ruled out or ruled in by care providers making a diagnosis. Mental health professionals have to know about such things for the same reason that cardiologists need to be able to recognize the symptoms of heartburn. Clinicians need to be able, when appropriate, to tell a prospective patient, “You’re not depressed, you’re jet-lagged. Go home and get some sleep” or “It’s not a panic attack, just lay off the double espresso.”
It’s possible Perkins doesn’t understand that, but he doesn’t come across as someone who is either that stupid or that honest. So rather than give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he’s simply a moron, I’m assuming he’s deliberately misrepresenting the DSM to deceive his readers. He is, in other words, lying to his supporters to alarm them into sending him more money.
The rest of Perkins list is harder to make sense of. The FRC, like other anti-gay groups of the religious right, is still complaining that homosexuality is no longer listed as a mental disorder in the DSM. Yet here, by mocking the DSM and by snidely listing things like gender identity disorder and transvestic fetishism alongside jet lag, he seems to be suggesting … what? That these things are not substantially different from jet lag?
The context of this whole alarming Alert! is to oppose the treatment of mental illness. Perkins then goes out of his way to say that the treatment of necrophilia and pedophila are particularly “troubling.” Is there any way to read that other than as Perkins suggesting that these disorders should not be treated? Because that seems like a very strange thing to be arguing for anyone who’s not a member of NAMBLA. I strongly disagree with Perkins on this point. I’m not a kid anymore and I’m not dead yet, but I would still like to make sure that any potential pedophile or necrophiliac is treated as swiftly and thoroughly as possible.
Part of Perkins’ problem here — or at least part of the problem he’s pandering to — is the popular evangelical notion that there’s really no such thing as mental illness, only sin. (The secular parallel to this in conservative ideology is that there’s no such thing as mental illness, only irresponsible personal choices.) In many evangelical circles, the word “therapeutic” is used only as a sneering pejorative. This arises from several of the more troublesome aspects of the American evangelical subculture: from its instinctive anti-intellectual/anti-science bias; from its neo-Neo-platonic belief in a body/mind, flesh/soul duality; from its illiteralist misreading of scripture (“they’re not mentally ill, they’re demon possessed“).
What that all adds up to, in many branches of American evangelicalism, is an attitude toward mental illness that is indistinguishable from that of the Christian Scientists.
One could try to counter this weird idea that mental illness equals sin by methodically addressing each of those root assumptions and rationally explaining the flaws of each, trying, through education and reason, to liberate Perkins’ followers from the intellectual veal pens he’s trapped them in. That approach might even be effective on some rare occasions. Most of the time, however, this idea will persist until the person subscribing to it has some direct personal experience that breaks through the illusory construct. They need to meet someone who is directly affected by mental illness. They need to love someone who is directly affected by mental illness.
Once that happens, it becomes much harder to continue blaming the victim.