Discussing Mental Health

Hannah Tuttle | 7/1/22

As a debater, I have always loved advocating for what I believe in. Whether it’s bills in Congress about climate change or resolutions in Public Forum about sanctioning Venezuela, I usually end up developing some passionate feelings about the subjects I research. It’s important to remember that even though debate is a game of skill and logic, the issues that we tackle within speech and debate are very real and impactful- which means we have a responsibility to handle them with the respect and professionalism that they deserve.

While most debaters are already familiar with this concept, as we all mutually acknowledge that it is unacceptable to discriminate against people or perpetuate needless violence, there are certain social issues that are less discussed- including the way that we interact with mental health systems and people struggling with and affected by mental illness.

We need to change the way we talk about mental health in debate.

There are both obvious and hidden ways debaters can stigmatize mental illness- the main two ways that I’ve observed are using outdated and stigmatizing language or painting mentally ill individuals as dangerous or untrustworthy. Within speech, speakers often use other’s trauma as their own story to gain sympathy points- something that can be rather tasteless and inconsiderate to people who have genuinely had those traumas.

Using words like “schizo”, “crazy”, “insane”, “mental”, or “deranged” to describe an opponent, idea, or person can add to the stigma of mental illnesses. In a world full of amazing words, there really is no reason to use words that have a negative connotation about one’s mental stability. Try using asinine, ridiculous, wild, extreme, bizarre, strange, or other specific terms to describe a behavior or action- as these words refer to one’s character rather than their health.

Moreover, we need to stop using bad faith arguments that paint mentally ill individuals as reckless or dangerous. Factually speaking, most people with a diagnosed mental health condition are less likely than their peers to commit crimes and more likely to be victims of crimes. Instead of arguing that a bill will allow mentally ill people to go unmonitored, argue that a bill will reduce resources to support those individuals. Consider emphasizing how inappropriate policing can hurt disabled people, how systems reduce access to mental health care, or how certain policies may discriminate against people struggling with mental illness. Phrasing arguments to support providing care for struggling individuals rather than blaming them for their struggles changes the game entirely. It makes your argument more compassionate and stronger.

Speech has a particularly strong issue with this. In Oral Interpretation or Dramatic Interpretation events, many individuals choose to act the stories they find the most scarring and attention grabbing- often revolving around rape and sexual assault, abuse and oppression, and mental health crises. While these are important stories that should not be censored, it’s important to be mindful of the audience. Consider warning your audience about the content or using content that is based on personal experiences. Speech is about how you present the content, not who can generate the most shocking content. Remember that it is also more useful to focus on the recovery stage of a crisis rather than the deepest pits of it- raising awareness to how someone can heal rather than portraying great deals of needless suffering.

Considering mental health and how we interact with mentally ill people is a critical part of advocating for these groups. As debaters, we should all strive to do our best to be aware and conscious of our audiences and all groups of people.