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Who Decides What Is Funny?

People seem to like making reference to mental illness, whether it’s for humour or to support their political arguments. When they do, it often is not in the context of trying to help people with mental illness access quality care, experience less stigma, gain the social & financial supports we need, or to help our families. When they do call for better access to care, it is often to solve another problem that would be better addressed by all people examining their privilege, biases, enacting sensible policies, and standing up to those who perpetuate the problems. I find it rather frustrating.

I recently saw a joke implying that people who think X have a mental illness – and yes, it explicitly used the phrase “mental illness” within the context of a doctor-patient interaction. I asked the person to take it down, said it’s not funny, and explained why. In response: one person questioned my reasoning abilities, one person told me to “find something better to do,” one person argued with me about why it is funny and said if I’m that sensitive I shouldn’t hang out online. And one person stood up for me, supporting and adding to my argument. I’m so grateful for that last person, and I wish more people would have a similar response.

Different people find different things funny. Maybe some of the people who find jokes like that funny have mental illnesses/mental health issues – who am I to judge?

The problem is that people use the terms “mental illness,” “crazy,” “have issues,” “something wrong with their head,” etc. to cast judgment on others who do or think things that are perceived as inappropriate, unacceptable, or downright wrong. I’m not comfortable with that; I think jokes or serious statements that reference mental illness to judge others contribute to the stigma people with mental illness face.

Maybe there are times when a person doesn’t mean it that way and I’m not helping by assuming they do and calling them out on it. Maybe I need to take a step back. I’ll give folks that. I’ll try to resist the temptation to respond in the moment, and instead formulate a response (or choose not to respond) after I’ve cooled down a bit.

But I think, if anyone has the right to determine whether a reference to mental illness is appropriate or funny, it’s the person with a clinical diagnosis – followed by caregivers and close family members of someone with a clinical diagnosis, followed by mental health professionals. We generally give that kind of deference to people with other health issues and members of marginalized groups – in some cases to the point of removing words or phrases from our vocabulary. I think that’s appropriate and necessary. I think people with mental illness (and members of other marginalized groups, particularly people with disabilities) should be given the same respect.

Different people find different things funny. Something that offends me might make another person with my diagnosis literally roll on the floor laughing. That person has every right to disagree with me. For that matter, people with no personal experience of mental illness (if such people exist) have every right to disagree with me.

But I think we can (or should) agree that no one has the right to attack or insult me for calling a frivolous reference to a serious health issue that has threatened my life and the lives of people I love inappropriate. If I say “I have a mental illness and I don’t think this is funny; please take it down,” people should take my request seriously. Even if they disagree with me, even if they choose not to take it down, their response should convey respect for the fact that I too am a person who deserves to be treated with dignity. Is it really so much to ask?

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