In the last discussion on positive and negative effects of the various mental illness labels, a few comments came together on a tangential topic that truly deserves its own conversation. In response to the “high-functioning” label, Jen said,
“I don’t call myself “high functioning”, because I think it’s a bit of an elitist term, but I do understand why it’s used and that there has to be some name for what that term means that we can use to describe people who are able to, well, function, despite being seriously ill.”
I want to pause here on the idea of elitism in some labels. I thought for a while before responding with “I agree that it is often elitist — at the very least, it sounds elitist. Those who aren’t ‘high-functioning’ probably find it elitist (I would). In truth, I don’t think there’s anything truly elitist in being able to ‘pass.'” I believe the elitism heard in the “high-functioning” label is a direct result of the way the term is defined and the connotations that come with it. It is double-edged in that it has one set of connotations within the mental health community (including professionals and supporters) and another set of connotations within the general public. The latter includes the idea that the high-functioning mentally ill have particular talents resulting from their diagnoses. (No specific links here necessary, I think. Just google “Mental Illness Creativity.”) To wholesale excerpt some (just some) of my thoughts on this point:
“Without exaggeration or hyperbole, I HATE…the fetishistic and romanticized* view of the so-called ‘high-functioning mentally ill.’…What really makes us “high-functioning” is that other people think we’re not mentally ill. What’s worse…is the seemingly universal tendency to attribute whatever exceptional behavior might be exhibited to the peculiarities of the [diagnosis]. Nash is a genius who suffers schizophrenia — he is not a genius because he’s schizophrenic… If Van Gogh was mentally ill, he was an amazing painter as well — His illness did not paint; He did. Same with Woolf and Plath and Wallace and god knows how many others…And while I am no fucking genius, I know that the things I can do are done by me — Not By My Disorder. I know this because my disorder is debilitating, and I don’t produce solidly when sick. I think this is the most damaging part of the high-functioning label in the general public. Not only is our accountability taken away when we’re given the ‘mentally ill’ label (‘Oh, she’s not really responsible for her actions right now.’), but we lose credit for those things we work really fucking hard to do (‘Well, I could do that too if I were crazy.’).”
While we’ve already had a few comments on this, I’d like to return the conversation specifically to Jen’s comment on elitism. Not to single anything out, but for the sake of discussion, I’m also pulling a comment from Natalie to the fore:
“…our higher than average intelligence, penchant for thinking outside the box, creativity, passion, etc. has everything to do with our particular diagnoses.”
Partially because it is out of context and partially because of the nature of the post, what is not clear is whether this comment is speaking of the “high-functioning” or anyone with a mental health diagnosis. I’m inclined to believe it is the former because the implications of the latter are just cruel. That being said, the former lays out a specific definition of “high-functioning” that has not yet been discussed on this site — one that feeds elistism, one that I see as oppressive in the exoticization* it leads to, one that I see as infantilizing in how it strips away accountability and credit. I personally see this definition and connotation of the “high-functioning” label as perpetuating the stigma surrounding MI matters by simply finding yet another way to extend the labels of abnormality and otherness.
I, however, started this forum to hear multiple perspectives. What, if any, are the relationships between mental illness and creative ability? What, if any, are the relationships between these abilities and levels of functioning? I’d like to posit here that our personal definitions of “functioning” are at the core of this topic.
*For the record, the hurried nature of the comments means I wrote “fetishizing and romanticized.” While both are true in my opinion, a more appropriate term for what goes on is “exoticization.”
[Note on the image accompanying this post. I draw and write and do other creative-ish and sometimes sorta-smarty things. I believe I would do these things without my disorder. Being able to do these things is what push me forward.]
It has come to my attention that, for the sake of productive discussion, I should make a few things explicitly clear. It is not always easy to be both moderator and participant in this forum. The moderator asks the questions I usually make bold in the discussion topic. The participant gives her opinion in these posts as a way to start the discussion and to give forum members something to respond to. These are simply my opinions, and I thoroughly expect and hope for disagreement. I do write with conviction because, like all of us, these are issues in which I have a great deal invested. While maintaining that conviction, I strive to meet the expectations set forth in the spirit of the Terminology page. I ask that we all do the same.