Who is to blame for mental illness?

And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind? — John 9:2

It is human nature to want to blame someone or something when things go wrong. Of course we want to know why. What did I do? What didn’t I do? Who made this happen? Who could have prevented it?

Somehow, knowing who’s responsible and why things are the way they are should make us feel better, right? At the very least, if someone caused this, they should be able to fix it. This need to hold someone responsible is ingrained in the English language: someone (subject) did something (verb). An action requires an actor to make it happen. Thus not knowing who did this or why it happened can be very uncomfortable.

So who’s responsible for mental illness?

Some mental illnesses, by definition, have a cause. Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), for example, requires a trauma to have occurred. Childhood abuse can result in lasting mental, emotional, and physical scars. Some chemical substances and certain injuries cause brain damage and affect behavior. But most mental illnesses have no single identifiable cause—and rarely is that cause a single person. Yet it is so easy to react with confusion, guilt, anger—and especially blame.

We naturally want reasons, and having someone to blame is so tantalizing: it seems to promise a sense of control, a sense of relief, a sense of purpose, a sense of justice, a sense of closure. But does it? There is a difference between looking for a cause and looking for a scapegoat.

It may be helpful to step back and ask whether blaming someone (even yourself) is necessary or helpful. Would it truly give you the outcome that you desire? Does placing blame allow you to change, to make meaning of your experience, and to move forward? Or does it cause you to hold grudges, dwell on the past, and remain stuck where you are?

As Elder Alexander B. Morrison observes, “Ascribing blame for mental illness causes unnecessary suffering for all concerned and takes time and energy which would better be used to increase understanding of what is actually happening—to get a complete assessment and proper diagnosis of the illness involved, to understand the causes, to get proper medication and learn behavioral and cognitive techniques that are part of the healing process.”

Looking for blame keeps us from looking for solutions.

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