“It was all I knew” said one person to me recently who suffered sexual abuse, violence and total neglect from when just 4 or 5 years old. “I may have been even younger when it all started, I just don’t know”, the person added.
Given the right opportunity, it is no surprise that those who have been treated so unjustly (words fail me) begin to ask all manner of questions as they try to somehow make some sense of the senselessness. “To what extent has this made me the person I am today?” “The extreme moods, the feeling depressed, the difficulty sleeping at night…is this a mental illness?” And without even a hint of self-pity: “Why me?”
A year or two ago I had an email discussion with someone who contacted me but who wished to remain anonymous. She began with a question: isn’t it sometimes more appropriate to speak of injury rather than mental illness when referring to those who have been abused? (That’s mental, emotional, violent and/or sexual abuse).
She felt that “labelling survivors of abuse as having an ‘illness’ only serves to assist those who have a vested interest in that situation remaining unidentified and uncorrected” – those were her exact words. It was as if she was being made out to be the sick one – instead of being recognised as the injured party and the victim of injustice. One could of course argue that viewing her plight as an ‘illness’ does not necessarily mean that it was not also an ‘injury’. She too recognised that, as that which injures us (including trauma) can make us sick in one way or another.
In our discussion she pointed out that an injury is “damage or harm done to or suffered by a person”. Interestingly, our word ‘injury’ is derived from the Latin ‘iniūria’, which has a range of meanings: a wrong, injury, abuse, sexual assault, damage, hurt, offence, injustice, outrage.
Our discussion broadened as we considered the experiences of those people who have found psychiatric practices to be overly coercive and injurious. And what about the harms (sometimes irreversible debilitating long-term damage) from taking mental ‘health’ drugs – isn’t this also injury? Sadly, people still get told that it is their (mental) ‘illness’ when adverse drug reactions such as anxiety, depression or psychotic experiences occur.
There is of course an old Szaszian debate about whether or not so-called ‘mental illness’ is rightly deemed ‘mental’ (the impact affects the whole of our lives) or is really an ‘illness’ as such (medically speaking); just now, that’s a distraction and I have no intentions of going there. But there is no doubt that there are countless people diagnosed as suffering with anxiety, depression, fears, and the like, who have been oppressed by others and are the victims of repeated and horrendous injustice. It may be that some of these people (like the anonymous person who so thoughtfully wrote to me) may find it helpful to think of the impact of their life experiences more in terms of ‘injury’ (what others have done to them) than as an ‘illness’ (that they happen to have).
“A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction, and in either case he is justly accountable to them for the injury.”
― John Stuart Mill, On Liberty