Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me. What a lie. A whistling in the dark, wishful thinking, lalalalala with my fingers in my ears bold-faced lie. Who among us has not been hurt by words?
So here’s a biggie. I was surfing the Net, looking for mental health news (the dearth of forward motion in that regard a topic for another day). I saw a Daily Beast blog on the recent shootings at the Washington Navy Yard and I as I was reading along, I was stunned to see a reference to a federal gun law that prohibits the sale of guns to people who have been “adjudicated as a mental defective.” I stopped dead in my tracks, read no further and started researching whether it could possibly be true that we have a law in this country, right here, right now, that refers to a person who is mentally ill as “a mental defective.” It took me all of thirty seconds to pull up the FBI Fact Sheet for the National Instant Criminal Background Check System and maybe ten more to retrieve 27 CFR § 555.11 which provides definitions for regulations under the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (now called the ATF).
Yes, Martha, we in the United States of America do in fact have a justice system that refers to people as mental defectives. Under the ATF regulations, they are disqualified from possessing a firearm. The regulation defines a mental defective as a person who has been determined by lawful authority, “as a result of marked subnormal intelligence, or mental illness, incompetency, condition, or disease [to be]: (1) a danger to himself or to others or (2) lacking the mental capacity to contract or manage his own affairs.”
Fine, no problem with the me that people who are enormously unstable or unable to think clearly can’t own a gun. But let me tell you, calling such people “mental defectives” in big black letters as the law of the land turns my stomach. I feel physically ill every time I read it. How do we expect to get past stigma in this country if even our laws carry it imbedded in their text?
I decided to research a little more. I found a comment in testimony from NAMI (the National Alliance on Mental Illness) in 2007, in the wake of the Virginia Tech tragedy. Part of a single line in the testimony is devoted to the pejorative nature of the language: “First, as a threshold consideration, the term “adjudicated as a mental defective” is stigmatizing….” No more is said on the topic nor did I find other commentary about it. NAMI describes itself as “the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness.” Then get your ass out there and tell someone out loud and in a way that everyone can hear and will not easily forget or shove aside that people with mental illness are not defective and do not appreciate being referred to as such.
Yes, words can hurt me, and being called defective surely does. Not only am I hurt, I am outraged for myself and for every other person who has ever, does now, or will ever suffer from mental health issues. If I have to dance naked (well, maybe not naked) on tables to get people’s attention, I will do it. This needs to stop.