Mental illness does not excuse past actions

Story by Katie Hohman
Staff Writer

Illustration by David Sohn
Staff Illustrator

Social media platforms like Twitter have popularized and solidified “cancel culture” as a normal part of bringing about justice. Calling out people for their mistakes on social media allows for a more public form of confrontation and ensures that no one gets away with problematic past actions. The community centered around cancelling public figures has only grown in size and continues to dig up celebrities’ questionable behavior. 

Despite the ruthless nature of cancel culture, past actions are oftentimes excused when a person claims to suffer from a mental health disorder. If a celebrity publicly speaks out about their mental struggles, fans begin to take pity on them and their actions are excused. The public opinion on a celebrity can turn from one of distaste to approval when mental health is added to the equation.

This excuse for mental health is shown most often in writing and instances where authors are accused of such behavior. While writing has always been a medium of reflection and authors tend to open up about their mental health disorders more than most, that does not mean they are above criticism. Writers who paint themselves as a tormented figure and make their struggles public are almost never called out.

David Foster Wallace, an author known for his short stories and novels that focus on depression and mental illness, is a perfect example of this phenomenon. Since his suicide in 2008, Wallace has become an idolized figure amongst the literary community. His stories of pain and sorrow have turned him into a martyr, while his troublesome past and abuse of ex-girlfriend Mary Karr have been almost completely ignored.

While it is important to acknowledge past issues like struggling with mental illness, it can end up taking the place of any real self-improvement. Authors that focus on the pain their mental disorders have caused them often end up removing themselves from confrontation and accountability. Instead, their writing becomes a form of deflection. 

Mental health disorders can be a scary thing to experience and public discussions surrounding mental health are incredibly important, especially when it comes to destigmatizing disorders. But, opening up about mental struggles should not become an excuse for wrongful behavior.

It is unproductive to immediately forgive someone’s past actions just because they are struggling mentally. When public figures use mental health as a diversion, they are normalizing a form of manipulation and refusing to accept their past actions. It is necessary for the public to educate themselves on a celebrity’s struggles, but this knowledge should never cloud one’s ability to hold people accountable.

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