FAQs – How does the “mental illness” label get used in spiritual abuse?

The following is a comment I made on Tony Jones on Mark Driscoll: Which came first, the thug or the theology?

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I’ve been thinking about all the stuff in this thread on stigmatizing someone with a label of “mental illness.”

Lydia speaks above (September 19, 2014 at 9:49 am) about abusive leaders who masquerade as “great men,” which gives them the stature needed to play “The Crazy Card” on people successfully. The thing that’s so insidious is that this “poisons the well” on another person by innuendo or outright labeling, especially if someone’s behavior under stress *seems* to support the conclusion pronounced against them.

But things are not always what they seem. If I remember right, there are at least 50 different sources that can have symptoms that make someone look like they’re drunk — disoriented, swaying, stumbling, slurred speech. (If that number is off one direction or the other, someone with a medical background please correct me.) One source is diabetes, when the person’s insulin level is way off and they get woozy and can talk incoherently. Another is Parkinson’s Disease, where they’ve lost motor control and stagger. Strokes can have symptoms of slurred speech.

So, just as apparent drunkness is not itself an automatic diagnosis of pathology, “crazy” behavior is not always what it seems. That’s especially true if the “diagnosis” comes from someone in a role of authority over others who benefits by gaslighting his/her victims to think they’re going crazy, or by labeling them as if they *are* crazy.

Here are some of the Crazy Cards I’ve heard being played (some onto me, others in malignant ministry situations I’ve personally been in):

* They’re quite “ill,” if you catch my drift.

* You’re the most self-centered person I’ve ever known.

* They’re mentally unstable.

* There was a “personality conflict.” [Meaning, I’m the calm, sane, rational one, and they’re not.]

Labeling is often an effective way for bullies to implant doubts, to discount the truth that is told by others, to reinforce denial in the hearts and minds of their own followers. It is as my favorite philosopher — okay, so it was Dana Carvey — said: “To label me, is to ignore me.”

I have been labeled, ignored, minimized by bullies. I know what it is and how it hurts. I’ve been where it makes me want to yell my story louder so, hopefully, someone finally hears it — which unfortunately only reinforces the false perception that I’m crazy. “See how angry and irrational he is?” Or, “Look out — stay away from that one!” Or, “The next church you go to, I’ll be warning the elders there about you.”

So, when it comes to dealing with issues regarding supposed “mental illness,” I’ve learned that it’s best to proceed with caution. I make observations, consider patterns, and if/when I speak of it, I try to do so tentatively: “It looks like they do obsessive compulsive things.” Or, “They seem overly wrapped up in themselves and have no conscience about hurting others, so it could be they’re dealing with narcissism.” Or, “IMO, that showed a complete lack of compassion!”

That’s because I don’t have the credentials to diagnose — even if I have credibility from a track record of noting patterns of problems. Becky Garrison makes an excellent point about this in her comment (September 12, 2014 at 1:31 pm).

Anyway, I talk tentatively unless I can verify that there is a clear diagnosis of mental health issues, reached by a professional (e.g., psychologist, psychiatrist), who is qualified/certified to make such evaluations and draw such conclusions. And even when there is substantial objective evidence to go with the subjective observations and interpretations of myself and others, I refrain from talking about it unless there is a *need* for me to say something specific.

Even then, I’m still cautious when speaking about such problems — or about much of anything related to spiritual abuse, actually. But if need be, when there is reliable evidence to back it up, I use the sentence-starter-line that I crafted a few years ago to put questioners and challengers on notice that we’re dealing with evidence, not mere opinion. It goes like this (and has saved me from flame-war exchanges numerous times): “It is documented and verifiable by witnesses that …”

And from what Julie has shared in this thread, it looks like there may be a lot of clinical evidence available in this situation.