Defending the Mentally Ill From Bullies: Health Industry Perspectives

Joel Eisenberg

Sufferers of mental health-related disorders are frequently prone to bullying, or lashing out. The following strategies for both have been analyzed and published by mental health professionals.

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Author’s Note

This article is based on mental health studies and accredited media reports. Though I myself am a former mental health professional and will share some personal information, I will offer no medical advice herein.

It is imperative for anyone who suffers from any mental health-related issue, including those who suspect the onset of illness, to visit their doctor for proper treatment protocols.

All listed theories and facts shared within this article are fully-attributed to several medical experts, scientists, and media outlets, including SunBehavioral.com, StopBullying.gov, ScarySymptoms.com, Rona Novick, PhD, VeryWellMind.com, and Karen Gail Lewis, EdD, MFT, MSW.

Introduction

I have written extensively about mental health-related issues for NewsBreak due to both professional and personal experience in these matters.

Prior to a ten-year special education teaching stint and studies in the field of Abnormal Psychology, my first experience witnessing a public defense of a mentally ill individual was on behalf of my father when I was 12.

In “And Then Dad Was 70. And He Was No Longer Here,” a Father’s Day profile of my dad, I shared an anecdote with NewsBreak readers about encountering a mentally-impaired teen in Disney World. As others were laughing and pointing at him and his father, and making jokes at their expense, my dad engaged the boy in conversation:

“You’re going to Disney World?” he asked.

“Yes… yes! We’re going to Disney World, we’re going to Disney World!” the boy responded.

“Are you going to have fun today?” my dad asked.

“Yes, we’re gonna have fun! We’re going on the rides!”

“Good; it’s good to have fun on the rides,” said my dad. “You have a great day, okay?”

My dad turned disapprovingly to those making fun of the boy, and said nothing to them despite their taunts. He then turned to the boy’s dad, who was overwhelmed with the kindness.

Often, guardians or companions of visibly mentally-ill individuals witness or bear the brunt of teasing sometimes as often as the sufferer. Popularly known as fear or misunderstanding of the other, such teasing, or worse inclusive of violence, is common.

But mental illness, or mental disability, is itself a spectrum that runs from mild to severe. One may be quietly depressed and bereft of any outward sign of impairment, while the issues with others may be severe and visible, such as those who deal with diagnoses of moderate to severe autism or mental retardation.

Sometimes the less outwardly obvious issues make one a target of their own inadvertent accord. For example, I once wrote on NewsBreak about a personal relationship I engaged with a woman who suffered from bipolar disorder.

As excerpted from “When a Sufferer of Bipolar Depression Lashes Out at You in Anger: Personalizing Intermittent Explosive Disorder,” regarding an anonymous individual to whom I referred only by her first initial (and who permitted me to share the story): N also had a tendency to lash out, targeting individuals in both her immediate vicinity and those outside with minutes, sometimes hours, of invective before entering an empty room and locking the door behind her. She would then typically and repeatedly apologize, until the following morning when she would begin her new day as if nothing had happened.

When N lashed out at others, I frequently had to intervene and apologize — for her safety and the safety of others — while sometimes struggling to diffuse the conflict.

Again, in mental health circles this is common regardless of particularly affliction.

Let us explore further.

Defending the Mentally Ill

SunBehavioral.com, the website for Delaware’s noted behavioral health organization, features a comprehensive article on defense mechanisms of sufferers — as opposed to defenses of sufferers — which may help elucidate certain mindsets.

See here for “10 Common Defense Mechanisms in Mental Health,” which states: Defense mechanisms are a set of actions, thought patterns, and behaviors that people use to separate themselves from harmful thoughts, events, or actions. The human brain uses these psychological strategies in order to distance itself from unwanted feelings and threats, such as guilt or shame.

The reason behind the inclusion of this piece is to elucidate that those who practice such self-defense mechanisms often do so because they feel attacked, which can become a cycle.

StopBullying.gov, a federal website devoted to ending bullying on a general basis, says the following, which underscores the importance of a companion when available: When adults respond quickly and consistently to bullying behavior they send the message that it is not acceptable. Research shows this can stop bullying behavior over time. Parents, school staff, and other adults in the community can help kids prevent bullying by talking about it, building a safe school environment, and creating a community-wide bullying prevention strategy.

It must be noted that in the end, bullying is only different in targeting sufferers of mental illness vs. non-sufferers by virtue of how the victim may respond. It is also imperative to understand many who suffer from a mental health-related issue are wholly functional, perhaps medicated, and not necessarily prone to being with a companion in their day-to-day.

For this later group, advice as to how to diffuse or walk away from bullying is particularly important. ScarySymptoms.com quotes a decorated mental health professional in their article, “Why Ignoring Bullies Won’t Make Them Go Away.”

From the article: “When a bully locks onto a victim, they are invested in demonstrating and continuing to demonstrate their power over the victim,” says Rona Novick, PhD, who developed the BRAVE bully prevention program... Most victims are “selected“ as targets because of their emotional reactivity, largely based on inborn temperament factors, is difficult to change.

Telling adults or using distraction, according to Dr. Novick, is highly recommended.

For general tips as to how to deal with bullies and bullying, VeryWellMind.com, in their piece entitled “7 Ways to Stand Up to Bullying,” states: Being bullied is not easy to cope with and there are no simple solutions. Bullying can leave kids feeling helpless, vulnerable, and confused. They are often so shocked, embarrassed, or upset that they are not sure what to do. Unfortunately, this indecision or lack of response can open the door to more bullying. "The goal is to de-escalate the situation," says Karen Gail Lewis, EdD, MFT, MSW, a marriage and family therapist in Washington, DC.

Though Lewis appears to disagree with Novick’s wording on “ignoring” bullies being ineffective, she does state that not every strategy works in every circumstance, which is important to consider.

Conclusion

There is great similarity in bullying of the mentally ill and bullying of those who do not suffer. The former are easy targets, which makes them prime for the ire of bullies.

It is highly encouraged to speak to a mental health professional if you, or someone you know, is the victim of bullying for any reason.

Thank you for reading.

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I am an award-winning author, screenwriter for film and television, and producer. My mission on News Break is to share socially important perspectives on both culture and pop-culture. Member of PEN America, and the WGA.

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