Why Mental Illness Does Not Excuse Your Behaviour Towards Others

People often excuse a behaviour if there are extenuating circumstances.

We tend to forgive, downplay or simply ignore it, because we realise that the person doing the behaviour is going through something significant and therefore are ‘not themselves’ at the moment.

If somebody just lost a loved one, they could be excused for having a shorter temper then usual or for crying openly in public. Leaving social gatherings early or for not coming in the first place is completely understandable. Because we know that that person is suffering, we tend to look at their behaviour with more empathy.

This acceptance of behaviour often also translates into acceptance of behaviour performed when intoxicated. We have all heard a variation of the excuse ‘They didn’t mean it, they were drunk at the time…’

Once again, we tend to overlook stupid, aggressive, thoughtless or selfish behaviour when drugs or alcohol are at play.

Consider your reaction if you heard that your partner, completely sober, got into a fight with another completely sober person on a street corner. Compare that, to your reaction if all parties were seven drinks in. The behaviour is the same, but the feeling about the behaviour is less extreme. You would by no means be happy about it, but in a way, you could better understand it.

If your partner is drunk and gets into a fight, you can mentally put that behaviour down to the alcohol. You don’t have to face the idea that your partner is a violent person – hard to accept. You know that if they were sober it wouldn’t have happened. The intoxication takes away the cognitive dissonance of the situation. Your partner is not aggressive, they just had too much to drink that night – easy to accept.

This concept of accepting the behaviour seems to be applied to people beyond just the effects of temporary intoxication.

Speaking from experience, people suffering from mental illness often will excuse some of their behaviours to their illness. When I am feeling quite anxious or depressed I withdraw socially. Often not participating in any gatherings or events for weeks on end. I openly blame my mental state for my absence – and people accept it.

Depending on the illness, different behaviours may be shown and subsequently excused. These can range from erratic decision making, impulse control issues and mood changes to miscommunications or substance abuse.

Once again, if we put these behaviours down to the mental issue, it is easier to accept that behaviour than if we apply it to the person themselves.

“My friend didn’t mean to hurt me, she just gets like that when she is suffering”.

Like with the life circumstances and intoxication, empathising with the impact of mental illness on an individual’s behaviour can dramatically help to understand why they are acting in a particular way. If you know what they are going through, you can better understand why they are doing the things they are doing.

This way we won’t take it as personally, because we see a reason why. We may not appreciate the behaviour, but we can at least explain to ourselves why it is occurring.

But what should we do if the person is always drunk? Or there is always a significant life issue happening? Or if they are always suffering with their mental issues?

In this instance, they will be presenting behaviours that are undesirable to you on a regular basis. Eventually this will become too much, you can only handle so much. When this occurs, you will feel torn, because part of you will still be rationalising their behaviours, but the other part of you will be sick of being exposed to them.

You will feel trapped between helping yourself and empathising with them. It is not their fault after all – you will repeat to yourself each time you go to leave.

The point is this, we need to judge people based on their consistent actions toward us. If we just look at the reasons behind the behaviour, we may be treated as a second-class citizen forever.

For example: If I become aggressive when drunk, you may not say I am an aggressive person. However, if I am always drunk, then ‘drunkenness’ is my normal state. Therefore, I am an aggressive person.

The same is true for people with mental health concerns or those going through significant life events. If they are always suffering, you need to take the behaviours the are consistently presenting to you as who they are. Not the person that they used to be, or the person that they are in their brief moments of respite from their suffering.

With this in mind, I want to make it clear – I am not suggesting that you should abandon those that are suffering. Rather, I am suggesting that you look at people for who they are and more importantly, how they are treating you.

I am an advocate of mental health awareness and strongly believe in helping others through the painful times of their lives. I have just learnt that if you are not careful, you can find yourself stuck, excusing behaviours time after time after time, and subsequently feeling horrible for not being strong enough to endure it “for them”.

Look after others, just make sure you are looking after yourself as well. 

Zachary Phillips