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Personal responsibility is important to me. I believe in personal autonomy and therefore feel that we should also be held accountable for our actions. One pet peeve of mine is using mental illness as an “excuse” for bad behavior. Now I don’t mean something like canceling on a dinner date because you have bad social anxiety; to me this is an explanation for why you feel unable to do something. It’s like saying that you can’t drive today because you have uncontrolled narcolepsy. This is an explanation that is reasonable. What I mean by excuse is something along the lines of: “I’m sorry I was rude to you earlier, it’s just my depression”. To me this is attempting to use mental illness as an excuse for bad behavior.

What is the problem with that? you may ask. If someone has a mental illness maybe it’s fair that once in a while it can be an excuse for them behaving badly. Well, I feel like it further increases the stigma and stereotyping surrounding mental illness. By using mental illness as an excuse for your bad behavior you are telling the person you are talking to that people with mental illnesses are unable to control themselves in many situations. What if that person is an employer? They’ve had an employee use mental illness as an excuse for being rude and inappropriate at work and now they are hiring new people. Do you think they are going to be as open-minded about who they hire in the future? Probably not. They will generalize and view all people with mental illness as less reliable and less in control of their actions thereby making them a potential liability in the workplace.

Or a person with addiction. Whether or not you believe a person has control over an addiction I still feel like s/he should take responsibility for his/her actions. Yes, maybe they stole something because they were desperate for money to buy drugs, but that doesn’t mean that the addiction should be an excuse for behavior. The ability to make the choice as to whether or not to steal was there. Maybe it was a barely visible choice, and yes, it is very hard to choose not to do something that will get you more drugs if you are a drug addict, but the choice was there nonetheless. We can disagree on whether they had a choice to take the drugs but they did have a choice on how to get the drugs.

I do have trouble with my own view though because I am unsure where to draw the line. What about a person with schizophrenia who behaves in a certain way because they were unable to differentiate between reality and what was happening in his/her head? I don’t think this person should be held fully accountable for their actions. They should have the right to explain that their mental illness prevented them from properly viewing reality.

Where is the line drawn between it being an excuse and being an explanation? I am not completely certain. I do know that I hate when people use problems like depression as an excuse for behaving badly or acting out but there are situations where it is a valid explanation. I am somewhat conflicted on the issue. What do you think?


EDIT: Follow up post found here.