A crisis of character in the Western world

I have a friend who has recently been ‘committed’. In the psychiatric sense. To a mental hospital. Perhaps rather arrogantly, I didn’t imagine I would ever be in this position – how could anyone I would befriend ever be locked away for mental illness?

I discovered this just a few days ago. She called from hospital to let me know what had happened. She sounded fine – no, not just fine, but positively chipper. “It’s just like being in a hotel” she confided, chirpily. When I asked her what had happened, she said it started with her flooding their block of flats by leaving a bath running, then progressed to the fire brigade attending, followed by the police. For reasons unexplained to me, she resisted the police, who apparently handcuffed her to try to restrain her. Rather than oblige, she continued resisting and wound up banged up at said ‘hotel’ up the road. It sounded like she was thoroughly enjoying herself, and the prospect of a six-month mandatory stay didn’t seem to phase her a bit.

One part of her story which raised a red flag for me, was when she described how she had behaved in response to the flooding incident. She said that (rather than going downstairs and checking to see what damage had been done) she chose to hide in her kitchen. The fire brigade thereby ended up having to break down her door to get in.

This small cameo speaks volumes to me and gives a clue as to what might really be going on for my friend – is she really bipolar, as she tells me she’s now been diagnosed (like most of the population now, it seems) or are we witnessing a crisis of character – the unwillingness to take responsibility for one’s behaviour.

According to experts only a handful of clinical conditions can potentially render a person not fully responsible for their behaviour. For example, people with delusional psychosis can commit heinous acts because their brains are not functioning properly. In such cases, an individual can lack the capacity to judge right from wrong.

But my friend is not in this position. She has never been diagnosed with delusional psychosis or any other condition that exonerates her from responsibility for her actions. But what I do notice, looking back, is that she has actively denied taking responsibility at crucial points in her life.

For example, when she was diagnosed with a serious physical condition which was subsequently retracted by her doctor as her health improved, she asked if he would keep the revised diagnosis a secret, to which he (remarkably) agreed. This entitled her to the full slew of sickness benefits and relieved her of the burden of ever having to take responsibility for her work life again. (The flats I mentioned are council of course, so any responsibility for rectifying the considerable damage caused by the flooding falls to the council).

When I delicately raised this matter with her some years later, she had totally forgotten that particular game-changing conversation with her GP, and I do recall thinking at the time – she has genuinely purged her mind of that truth. I wondered, at the time, what happens to the minds of people who choose to live in a state of denial. Perhaps now I am witnessing the answer.

A recent article by Dr George Simon PhD entitled ‘Mental disorders and accountability: is everyone a victim?‘ speaks to the increasing shift in Western culture towards a ‘he couldn’t help it – he has a mental disorder’ attitude, when in fact he does have a choice about whether or not to engage in responsible social behaviour. He refers to this as a crisis of character in the people of our Western nations:

“Not only has the character crisis being witnessed by the industrialised world over the past several decades reached epidemic proportions, but we have become so desensitised to it (or are in such enormous denial about it) and have grown so accustomed to claims that various mental disorders are really to blame for willful misconduct, that the very notion of personal responsibility for behaviour is in jeopardy of becoming extinct.”

I agree with him that ‘character is has always been key to responsible social functioning’ and we are now entering a brave new world where virtues of character are the exception rather than the norm.

As to my friend, in many ways, being committed may be her preferred next step along the pathway to total relinquishment of any responsibility for her life whatsoever – reversion to a perennial childhood. Perhaps, to her, being committed is not such a high price for total relief from the adult challenge of character formation.

Written by Jacqui Hogan