Are Addicts and the Mentally ILL Responsible for Their Behavior?


Photo Credit: 111foto /

By Greta Christina

Is it wrong to get angry at people suffering from mental problems like depression or addiction?

Are people with mental illness responsible for their behavior, and for how their behavior affects others? If so, to what degree? Does the degree of mental illness affect how we answer this question?

I’ve been thinking about this question for a long, long time. Many years, in fact. I’ve been thinking about it harder in the last year or so, since my father died, and since my most recent bout with depression. I’ve been thinking about it in terms of my own life and my own mental health; I’ve been thinking about it in terms of the lives and mental health (healths?) of my friends and family members who are dealing with mental illness, or who have dealt with it in the past. But mostly, I’m thinking about it in terms of my father.

My father died on Oct. 1, 2012. Dad was a pretty mixed bag: many wonderful qualities, many not-so-wonderful ones. Specifically, he was an alcoholic, a pretty bad one for many decades, and a significantly worse one as the years and decades wore on. And largely due to his alcoholism, he often behaved very badly. He wasn’t abusive, but he was often selfish, irresponsible, callous, quick with a barbed comment or a cruel joke just for his own entertainment, dismissive of other people’s feelings, unconcerned with how his actions affected others. It got worse, much worse, as the years went on and the disease of alcoholism progressed.

By the time he had his first stroke, the alcoholism had advanced to late-stage, brain-damage, memory- and speech-impairment territory, and the accompanying selfishness and irresponsibility got worse with the deterioration. (According to the doctors, the years of alcoholism almost certainly contributed to the stroke itself, and may have even been a primary cause.)

I don’t want to get into the litany of the details of his behavior right now. It’s too upsetting, and it’s kind of not the point. The point — the question I’ve spent decades asking myself, as I kept taking step after step away from my father and it kept not being far enough — is this: To what degree are mentally ill people — including alcoholics and other drug addicts — responsible for their behavior?

On the one hand: We cut sick people slack. We don’t hold them as responsible for their behavior as we do healthy people. We understand that sick people can’t always keep promises; can’t always do their share; get irritable; lose their temper. We understand that it’s the illness causing this behavior. We get angry at the illness, not at the people. And mental illnesses — including alcoholism and other drug addictions — are illnesses.

On the other hand: There’s a limit to that. We cut people some slack if they’re sick, but we don’t cut them infinite slack. We’d probably cut a sick person slack for losing their temper and snapping at their spouse, but we wouldn’t cut them slack for losing their temper and beating their spouse with a tire iron. We would condemn that. And rightly so.

On the other hand: Mental illness is, in some sense, an illness of the will, an illness of the self in a way other illnesses are not. Addiction especially. So with mental illness, it’s harder to distinguish between the illness and the person. The symptoms of cancer or diabetes or lupus don’t include “loss of judgment,” “self-involvement,” “poor impulse control,” “irresponsibility.”

And the symptoms of cancer or diabetes or lupus don’t include “inability to recognize the fact that you are ill,” or “inability to take your illness seriously and get treatment for it.” The symptoms of many mental illnesses, including addiction, do. Getting angry at an addict or a depressed person for having poor judgment is a bit like getting angry at a diabetic for losing a toe…







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