Don’t blame it on schizophrenia: Op-ed

Don’t blame it on schizophrenia: Op-ed

Delizia Flaccavento
Don’t blame it on schizophrenia: Op-ed

A few years ago I ran the Istanbul Marathon to raise awareness on schizophrenia. The motto was “Schizophrenia: no stigma, big gain,” because the stigma against mental illness ruins lives more than the illness itself. When I asked a fellow runner if she would run the marathon wearing a t-shirt supporting the cause, her reply was: “I am scared of those people, I don’t run for them.”

A few days ago, I read the outburst on social media, reported by a Hürriyet columnist, of a woman who is scared and disturbed by a man who stalks her: “46-year-old N.Ş., who I believe is a pervert, someone I am sure to be schizophrenic, is obsessed with me.”

These are not sporadic incidents, they are the result of a deeply ingrained stigma against a very disabling illness, which affects all major areas of life and has an incidence of one in 100 at every longitude and latitude regardless of education and socio-economic status. While mental health disorders in general are a taboo people don’t want to talk about, the stigma towards schizophrenia is the biggest, the main reason being probably its portrayal in films and in the media, which stress disproportionally violent acts by mentally ill people, which label people who commit unmotivated violence as “schizophrenic”, which insinuate a connection between perversion, obsession and mental illness.

Schizophrenic people are 14 times more likely to be victims of violence than to commit violence. Violence is not something that comes with mental illness: there are many environmental factors behind a person’s violent behavior. Violence is not more present in people who suffer from schizophrenia than it is in people who don’t suffer from schizophrenia. Furthermore, through psychosocial therapy and social inclusion programs, people suffering from schizophrenia can be active and productive in society. Using the term schizophrenic as synonymous of crazy and pervert is not only deeply wrong, it is also detrimental to positive social change when it comes to both women’s rights and mental health rights.

Together with female illiteracy, violence against women is Turkey’s bleeding scar. Every single day women are killed, battered, raped at the hands not of crazy men roaming the streets in search for their next victim, but at the hands of those who should love them and respect them the most: husbands, boyfriends, fathers, male family members.

How nice that Turkish is a genderless language: there is no he or she, we are all the same. Great. But at a second glance it is all about men: “adam gibi yap” (do it like a man), “adam ol” (be a man), for which there is no female equivalent, “teknik adam” (sport coach), which linguistically can only be a man, and of course the insult “karı gibi yapıyorsun” (you do it like a woman), as if women naturally do things worse, in a weak and whining kind of way…. What we say is not harmless, it deeply affects who we are and how we think, so change could start from language. And, while trying to fight patriarchy, as women we should also make sure we use language in a correct and empowering way without going accidentally and unwillingly against a group of people that is more vulnerable and more stigmatized than us: the mentally ill.

Someone might argue that Ceren Özdemir was killed by a man, Ozgur Arduç, who has a severe mental health disorder. Had Arduç been treated and received the mental health support he needed, Ceren’s destiny might have been very different. Unfortunately, if femicides are normalized by blaming them on helpless insanity or by blaming them on the way women dress and behave (like going out with their murderer or wanting the divorce against their husbands’ will), there cannot be any will to question violence and to treat men who act violently.

Is N.Ş. schizophrenic, as the woman scared of him suggests? I doubt a schizophrenic patient could run a business the way N.Ş. does and live a regular life with his illness going unnoticed to just turn from Doctor Jekyll to Mr. Hyde when it comes to his obsession with her. But maybe N.Ş. has psychological issues and therapy would help him and would make women in his town safer. The authorities should impose psychological treatment on men like N.Ş. who are reported by women for violent behavior or for stalking, rather than just taking them to the police station and letting them go after a few minutes. This would start breaking the culture of violence and silence that feeds violence against women. Don’t blame it on schizophrenia.