Mel Gibson May Be Mentally Ill, But He's Still An Asshole

Some are floating Mel Gibson's supposed bipolar disorder as an explanation for his abusive rants, raising the question, when is an asshole just an asshole?

ABC's Sheila Marikar notes that Gibson claimed to be bipolar in a 2008 documentary, saying, "I had really good highs but some very low lows. I found out recently I'm manic depressive." Not everyone sees Gibson's horrifying conversations with Oksana Grigorieva, in which he spews insults and racial slurs, as evidence of bipolar. Marikar quotes psychologist Melody Anderson, who explains,

Usually in a manic episode, the conversation is very rapid. Words come together very quickly. Listening to that tape, the way he's speaking, he's sounding out those curses. It sounds a lot more like a sociopathic kind of personality, and those are people with absolutely no remorse and no ability to have sympathy for someone in pain.

Whatever the case, Gibson may well avoid jail time. Says family law attorney Debra Opri,

I think he will say, 'I've got serious problems and I'm going to get help.' I don't see Mel Gibson doing jail time. I think he probably will become an inpatient in a psychiatric establishment.

From sex addiction to narcissistic personality disorder, "serious problems" of one kind or another have become de rigueur for celebs who step out of line, and an observer of American culture could be forgiven for thinking that all misbehavior must be caused by psychiatric illness. But isn't anyone, you know, bad?

Writing in the Times, Dr. Richard Friedman thinks so. He describes a teenage boy "with no evidence of any learning disability or mental illness," whose parents were loving and whose siblings were "well-adjusted and perfectly nice." Says Friedman,

[T]hat left open a fundamental question: If the young man did not suffer from any demonstrable psychiatric disorder, just what was his problem?

My answer may sound heretical, coming from a psychiatrist. After all, our bent is to see misbehavior as psychopathology that needs treatment; there is no such thing as a bad person, just a sick one.

But maybe this young man was just not a nice person.

Obviously if Mel Gibson is mentally ill, he needs treatment. But it's kind of a shame that those most likely to get such treatment — and the avoidance of jail time it provides — are the already-famous. The "serious problems" defense is a lot less likely to work if you're, say, a poor black man caught with drugs, and the people with the least access to mental health treatment are also those whose mental health issues are least likely to come up in the tabloids. It's people with publicists who get the opportunity to convince us that they're sick, while many actually sick people end up in prison, having been labeled "bad."

We seem to be obsessed lately with the perverting influence of celebrity, the way a sense of entitlement can worm its way into the brain and cause all manner of pathology. But celebs have a lot of advantages too, and someone whose response to almost unlimited money and success is a series of racist, anti-Semitic, and misogynist tirades deserves more than a little of our judgment. Let's not forget: people with mental illness can be kind, generous, and loving. So maybe mentally healthy people can also be dicks.

Mel Gibson: Mentally Ill Or Maybe Just A Jerk? [ABC]
Accepting That Good Parents May Plant Bad Seeds [NYT]