Of stereotypes and the ‘unsound mind’ clauses

Patricia_MwanyisaAuthor: Patricia Mwanyisa
Human Rights, Justice and Rule of Law Programme Officer, Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA)

Recently, during my studies I delved into the concept of stereotypes and their effects, albeit from a gender perspective. This academic encounter has become an important one to both my personal and professional frames of reference. I have discovered that my prior use and appreciation of the term stereotype was presumptuous, without depth and assumed familiarity. I had nonchalantly used the term often, in writing and conversation without fully appreciating the intricacies of this concept.

Quite worrying one might say, coming from a professional working on human rights, justice and equality issues – but I believe that my nonchalance is common among many of us. We tend to have a general over familiarisation with issues that form part of the realm in which we work and operate without necessarily appreciating the rudimentary theories underpinning particular terms or concepts.

So I think I deserve some credit for acknowledging my deficiency, and urge that we do not rush to deem as catastrophic such inadequacies in all circumstances because it is impossible to know everything about everything, even in your most familiar of territory. To be expected to know and fully understand each and every detail about a subject is a naïve expectation on the part of peers and an arrogant unintelligent assertion on the part of any such declarants. The universally renowned great mind Michelangelo, is remembered for his famous quote “ancora imparo” reportedly made at the age of 87 which means ‘I am still learning’ – well, so am I. So I ask for your indulgence as I share some of my learning on how stereotypes perpetuate inequality and marginalisation – you might just also learn that we all are still learning and need to keep learning.

I have learnt that stereotypes are a component of stigma. They assign negative attributes to socially salient differences forming what social identity theorists call in-group and out-group categorisation. People tend to stereotype as a means of screening people into either the in-group (us) or out-group (them) which in eventuality determines whether a group is accepted or rejected.

This categorisation (stereotyping) of other(s), provides people with a feeling of comfort and confidence based on what they are accustomed to, for predictability and personal security’s sake. Whilst it may be argued in some quarters that categorisation is useful in, for example, target marketing or planning of community and development projects among other mass planning purposes; unfortunately the cumulative effects of general categorisation and consequent stereotyping in most circumstances reinforce and perpetuate inequality.

Clearly as a result of these stereotypes the rights of persons with mental health disabilities appear to be routinely unprotected


How so and where am I going with this?

Well, a stereotype is a belief system that indiscriminately ascribes certain psychological characteristics to a particular group in an uneven, selective fashion – and often the determinants used in forming the belief structures people rely on when stereotyping are not founded on fact. For example, from a very young age I had grown up with a fear of people with mental health conditions, callously referred to as ‘mad’ people. For the purposes of my demonstration they were my ‘out group’. On reflection, I also believed that mental illness was a result of supernatural and spiritual causes. In fact, where I grew up the belief was that all “mad” people are demon possessed and victims of witchcraft – of course a ridiculous and an unsubstantiated stereotype. Where and how did I get this mind set is not something I can explain because I was never at any particular point in my upbringing formally educated to hold this belief. Those beliefs that I held, according to some psychological researchers, are based on unfounded constructs that are often automatic and socially pragmatic based on either physical or social distinctions assigned to an out-group by an in-group.

Researchers say that stereotyping can be over-learned and so deeply rooted in a person’s perception to the extent of operating subconsciously. This possibly explains – though does not excuse – my behaviour each time I would encounter a person I perceived as delusional, deranged, out of sorts, scruffy and wandering the street and concluded ‘they were mad, and so, must be dangerous’ – the unsubstantiated stereotype. Consequently that was subconsciously my cue to automatically cross the street in a bid to be as far away as possible from the perceived danger.

However unsubstantiated the stereotypes might be, they are often deeply ingrained in our subconscious minds and we embrace them without questioning as part of our cultural norms. Probably because we are said to learn to identify ourselves as an affiliate of a particular group from as early as the age five, implying the norms and beliefs of the group of affiliation no matter how prejudicial, are leant at that very early age as well. A famous writer and researcher on prejudice, Gordon Allport, states that we only start to understand exactly what signifies our affiliation to a particular group at about the age of ten.

On reflection, it is highly unfortunate that attitudes such as the one I held about people with mental health conditions in my early years, are still prevalent the world over. We have, over centuries created a universal out-group of people with mental health conditions. A consistent phenomenon across cultures globally, that carries the stereotypes that “mad” people are either dangerous, incompetent, of weak character or a combination of either or all of these ill-conceived characteristics.

So successful has been the universal stereotyping of this group that it is no surprise that we have normalised the institutionalisation, incarceration and condemnation of affected individuals that even our laws and statutes provide ample scaffolding upon which to prop marginalisation and discrimination. As a result many people with mental health conditions are prone to suffer discrimination, abuse and violence at home in police stations, detention centres, and mental health institutions as well as in their communities.

Almost all the constitutions of Southern African states have clauses referring to people of “unsound mind”. A cursory view of the constitutions of these states seems to indicate that the provisions are based on prevailing stereotypes. The discrimination, abuse and violence against people with mental health conditions is arguably partly perpetuated by laws that legitimize such stereotypes.

Without an accompanying definition for “unsound”, one could assume that ‘unsound mind’ was intrinsically deemed as less callous and a more appropriate term befitting a legal document than “mad”. The terminology for people with mental health conditions has included labels like lunatics, insane or deranged. Terms that persons with disabilities themselves have rejected, together with ‘unsound mind’ and replaced them with descriptors such as persons with psychosocial disability or users or survivors of psychiatry.

To illustrate why I suggest that the law in part perpetuates stereotypes and consequently feeds into discrimination and the violation of human rights: you will find that most constitutions will carry clauses such as: Everyone shall be entitled to personal liberty, save as may be authorised by law in the case of a person who is reasonably suspected to be of… unsound mind; No person shall be deprived of the right to property except as may be authorised by law … in the case of a person who is or is reasonably suspected to be of unsound mind.

Clearly such clauses are problematic particularly with the advent of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) which recognises and classifies mental health conditions as a disability. The CRPD is an effective tool for publicly and authoritatively transforming the world view on the rights of the people with disabilities and provides the necessary legal grounding for addressing the inequalities that exist between persons with disabilities and those without disabilities.

Intrinsically, through the unsound mind clauses, countries that have ratified the CRPD are in violation of the convention in that Article 4.1(a) of the CRPD imposes a duty on state parties to ensure that appropriate legislative, administrative and other measures for the implementation of the rights recognised in the convention are in place.

Unfortunately in the majority of instances where reference is made to persons of unsound mind this is done with regard to the limitation of rights of individuals. As such, a number of problems arise, not only in the definition of “unsound” but also from the use of accompanying phrases such as ‘reasonably suspected of being’ and ‘reasonably suspected’ … by whom?

Against what parameters or measurement will a person be deemed to be of unsound mind? Or alternatively what measure is used to determine a sound mind? Over what period should the measurement be determined and at what frequency should this measurement be conducted?

Obviously this becomes problematic in that it perpetuates the stereotype that all people falling under this category are incapable of understanding the nature and significance of issues that impact the lives of people with psychosocial disabilities and who are therefore ‘undeserving’ of their rights. My point here is that from a medical perspective, mental health conditions include depressive and anxiety disorders that are neurotic, stress related and mood disorders and somatoform disorders as well as psychotic disorders. Commonly known among these conditions are; psychosis, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar and so forth. Hence, if we take a common condition among us such as depression for example and going by a WHO 2011 Disability Report which estimated that approximately 151 million people suffered from depression globally, this implies that with the indiscriminate categorisation under the ‘unsound mind’ clauses, people suffering from depression are prone to discrimination and marginalisation because they could at some point be deemed to be of unsound mind.

In essence the ‘of unsound mind’ clause perpetuates archaic and derogatory laws and policies that incapacitate people with psychosocial disabilities from exercising their right to legal capacity and of exercising other rights that are pertinent to personal security and equal participation in key processes that citizens should enjoy on an equal basis with others.

As a result the rights to equal recognition before the law and to liberty as enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and amplified in the CRPD, are blatantly curtailed on the basis of a disability. In addition, persons classified under the “unsound mind” category are not allowed to register as voters, implying they cannot elect their public representatives, and worse still they may never entertain aspirations of ever holding public office given that many of the constitutions or national statutes nullify eligibility of people of unsound mind to vote.

How can we change this situation?

I would like to bring you back now, to the crux of my opening and my arduous attempt at defining stereotypes. The constructions of unsubstantiated stereotypes that we have over time built up about people with mental health conditions have had a detrimental effect on millions of people with mental health conditions and their families. For a long time we have internalised and believed, – across cultures and over generations – that people with mental health conditions are either: a) “a danger to society” – but statistics will show that the majority of perpetrators of most crimes and violence are of “sound mind”; b) “ are incompetent” – but those who have worked with or employed persons who have experienced mental health conditions will tell you that most are the most dedicated and determined, probably because they are ever aware that they need to work harder than everyone else to prove their ability; c) “incompetent and incapable of making their own decisions” – individuals with psychosocial disabilities often have to cope alone, with difficulties that arise from the symptoms of their illness and at the same time cope with the negative attitude of society.

There is no evidence to suggest that in the so called ‘sound mind state’ all the decisions made have been sound and fool proof. We have all made mistakes in our judgments many times; so why should we expect more from those we have decided to term ‘unsound mind’ – they too have a right to make their own mistakes, and yes, there will be numerous errors in judgement too, just like everyone else.

Clearly, as a result of these stereotypes, the rights of persons with mental health disabilities appear to be routinely unprotected, with laws failing to promote the non-discriminatory autonomy, respect and dignity of that people without mental health conditions enjoy. The CRPD Article 5(2) obliges state parties to prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability and article 5(3) places a duty on the State to promote equality and eliminate discrimination.

In Australia the category ‘of unsound mind’, was named by people with disabilities as a derogatory, judgmental and a stigmatising label used to write off people with disabilities as people lacking functional capacity and incapable of making rational decisions. Consequently the Australian Law Reform Commission has recommended that the “’unsound mind’ provision be repealed from the Commonwealth Electoral Act.

In fact, the supreme laws of almost all countries in the southern African region carrying these clauses deny people with psychosocial disabilities their rights: the enjoyment of legal capacity on an equal basis with others in all aspects of life (article 12(2)); not to be arbitrarily deprived of their liberty (article 14(1)(b); and to be respected for their mental integrity (article 17).

So, where do we start and what can we realistically do?

Unfortunately, despite the growing understanding of disability rights and the considerable hope that the CRPD brings, the margins of change at grassroots levels remain narrow because, of existing stereotypes. Stereotypes feed prejudice, thus discrimination persists. Riding on the advances made on the elimination of gender stereotypes though, abolishing wrongful stereotyping is essential for curbing discrimination, realisation of equality and the exercise of other rights and freedoms.

The CRPD, as a legally binding instrument that places a duty on State parties to ensure that rights of persons with disabilities (in this particular instance those with psychosocial disabilities) are respected, protected and fulfilled, will remain words on paper if enforcement of the instrument is lacklustre at the national levels.

I propose that, without challenging the stereotypes underpinning the ‘unsound mind‘ clauses, society will, from various angles at varying degrees, continue to discriminate and abuse persons with psychosocial disabilities, given the severity of ignorance about the disability. Ignorance on the part of the in-groups – people without disabilities and legal drafters or policy makers – is one of the biggest challenges which lead to prejudice.

Experts in the field assert that automatic (and conceivably socially pragmatic) prejudicial stereotyping is controllable given that ‘ignorance’ is a potential variable factor for change. Suggestions have thus been made to the effect that providing the right kind of information in an educative way, can help address the ignorance of in-groups. This would go a long way towards the shifting of the mind-sets of many, including policy makers and society at large and could potentially dismantle existing stereotypes.

Given that stereotypes are intrinsically entrenched in a society’s culture, deconstructing beliefs requires a combination of legal factors with complimentary initiatives such as education and educative programmes that provide evidence to the contrary of the beliefs held. Inclusive community and national development policies and projects and the provision of rights based healthcare services, community and personal support structures and assistance would all be necessary in the promotion of tolerance. Doing so would be a giant leap forward towards eliminating stereotypes ensuring an inclusive society – one that accommodates not only people with psychosocial disabilities but rather embraces difference in general.

About the Author:
Patricia Mwanyisa is a Human Rights, Justice and Rule of Law Programme Officer at OSISA. Her Programme houses OSISA’s general human rights, criminal justice, international justice, disability rights work as well as broader access to justice and rule of law work. Patricia has also worked as an Advisor for GIZ, Zambia. At GIZ she worked on the EU funded Access to Justice Programme, working extensively with Zambia’s key criminal justice institutions and also provided technical support and advisory to CSOs.
Follow Patricia Mwanyisa on twitter @TrishMwa

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