Thou Shalt Not Steal


Okay, I’m a little late getting saddled up this morning, but this is the pet peeve that’s stuck in my head and needs to find its way out today.

Just because you have a mental illness, you don’t get a free pass when you make bad choices and get yourself into trouble. (Yes, of course there’s a story or two or three or five that have spurred this thought in my brain today, but you know I can’t share those with you, so don’t ask, okay? Thanks) You don’t get a Get Out of Jail Free card.

I’m sorry if this is news to you.

Get over it.

This is how it goes down, among other ways. These are just the ones I can remember on 1 1/2 cups of coffee.

Mom brings little Johnny in. Little Johnny has been dancing on desktops and throwing books at his teachers and giving other little Johnnies and Jillies wedgies on the playground. He is a hellion. He can turn this behavior on and off at will. He is not psychotic. He does not have a brain tumor. He is, at seven years old, not under the influence of alcohol or street drugs. (Oh, yeah, I’ve seen that even at six years old. Another story for another day) He sits in my office as mother goes on and on and on about her frustrations, smiling a little sly smile as he listens to her and shoots me that see, what would you have me do? look that kids can shoot you.

Mom wants me to declare him terminally attention-deficit-ed, conduct disordered, defiant, learning disordered. Impaired. Damaged. Unable to conform to playground or classroom rules, much less the extreme sport of being a productive and cooperative family member in a loving home. She wants a pass. So, at the tender young age of seven, does the kid. He may have a conduct problem, but he is certainly not stupid.

The other one that sticks in my craw (I don’t actually have a craw, which is the crop of a bird or an insect, but I have always really loved the graphics that term conjures up in one’s mind) is the thirty-something lady who comes crying into clinic and demands that I release her from the clutches of a policing and legal system that found her shoplifting at Walmart or some such. Why? Because she is bipolar, by God, and bipolar people are not responsible for their actions. Especially when it involves pilfering nail polish, packages of glitter, and small cartons of half and half.  Really?

(Wait. Brb. Checking DSM V.)

I can’t find it anywhere. I don’t see it. I don’t see the out that you earn by wearing the Red Badge of Moodage. The invisibility cloak imparted by your mental illness that allows you to run red lights, drink and drive, and steal at will until caught, immediately followed by an outraged cry that you are Sick, sick, sick I tell you all!, sick to the point of not knowing what you are doing.

I am not responsible for my actions! I cannot be trusted to make decisions. I cannot be faulted for lying, cheating, stealing, pilfering, pandering, and jaywalking. You cannot touch me, because I am ill!

(clearing throat).


So sorry, but come on, people, there is no other word that gets the point across better, is there?


As you start your day, remember these things.

People with mental illness, legitimate mental illness, deserve the very best evaluation, diagnosis and treatment.

People with mental illness sometimes do things that are outside of the expected social dance. They can be forgiven for these faux pas, if they are actively engaged in trying to get treatment for their symptoms and make their way through life the best way they can given their skill set, talents, and limitations.

People with mental illness who break social rules, commit crimes, abuse others, steal things, disregard the normal boundaries and dignity of others, and trample the system do NOT get a free pass just because they have an Adjustment Disorder or PTSD or Generalized Anxiety Disorder.

Last time I checked, most of my patients with schizophrenia had never heard voices that told them to hot wire a candy apple red Mustang, steal it, and drive it at a high rate of speed across state lines and show it off to their friends (true story).  Come to think of it, none of my patients with schizophrenia. Zero. Zilch. Nada.

Come up with a better story for me, Skippy. Try again.

Mental illness is bad.

It is sickness, just like diabetes and migraine and hypertension.

It impairs ability to live a normal, happy life.

It does NOT act as a universal excuse for bad behavior.

As we say in the South, that dog just won’t hunt.

7 thoughts on “Thou Shalt Not Steal

  1. Preach it!

    Just one little quibble. You wrote: “People with mental illness, legitimate mental illness, deserve the best evaluation, diagnosis and treatment that they can access.” The *deserve* the very best, no qualifiers. In this imperfect world of ours, they can only receive what they can access, which is sometimes less than the best. I’m pretty sure you agree with me, and I’m only quibbling.

    Great post!


  2. There’s a catch phrase in child psychology that applies here, ‘Disorder x is not your fault, but you are still responsible for your behavior. It is an explanation, not an excuse.’


  3. Here is where, I think, the commitment laws are inadequate. I agree with you about people with schizophrenia not stealing red mustangs, but bipolar people can become quite delusional. If they are delusional (or were when they did whatever) then they should be committed for a time until they are stabilized. I think, too, that if they are not delusional and they don’t want to go to jail, a trip to the state hospital for a period of time would help them deal with behavior they say is symptomatic until they can control themselves. Unfortunately, at least where and when I was working, you could not be committed unless you were a threat to your own life or health or that of other people, and this tended to be strictly interpreted. Even if you were committed, 72 hours was the maximum you could be held without your consent without review.
    The reason I’d prefer treatment is that jail tends not to enhance insight into what you are doing. Sometimes treatment doesn’t, either, but there’s a better chance. Commitment to some kind of outpatient treatment addressing right and wrong would help, but that hardly exists. As I’m sure you’ve experienced, some of these people also have personality disorders and have trouble with the basic concepts of law abiding citizens. They need to learn from consequences of some sort, which can be treatment-based. As I said, though, jail doesn’t tend to do it for them. Once we took a bunch of kids to visit a jail. It seemed to have some effect.


  4. can you send this post to jesse jackson jr ? he’s was supposed to be sentenced yesterday but they put if off till august then again maybe you could send it to the judge he might need to see it even more.


  5. Buddenbook,

    Of course, we have addressed commitment in some detail elsewhere, and it is a thorny issue to say the least!

    I do agree though that putting someone in jail for doing something that directly stems from their psychosis or poor choices or impulsivity from bipolar disorder or other mental illness makes little sense.

    I aslo take your point about personality disorders. Folks who are truly antisocial don’t care one whit what the conventional laws are-they don’t apply to them. They face a lifetime of work just to fit into regular society and function, if they choose to even do that work in the first place.

    Thanks for reading and commenting!



  6. Amen! When I was a mental health worker I always used to tell my clients mental illness/parents/fill I the blank is what happened to you but it’s your choice how to deal with it. But I have to say that was more in response to them believing they couldn’t do something because of their diagnosis/”label.” Most of the folks I worked with were schizophrenic and wouldn’t dream of commiting a crime. Like you said there’s a huge difference in behavior that’s a result of poor sensory information. There’s nothing calculated about it. Bravo for this excellent post!


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