An employee speaks to a fellow employee about her depression.

Roundtable: Project Semicolon Promotes Mental Illness Eugenics

In case you missed it, Project Semicolon posted a video by Wesley Chapman for World Mental Health Day, proposing an ‘end to mental illness’ by 2025. Complete with sappy music and a series of bucolic landscapes, the film is a strikingly disablist (notably, there are no captions or transcript) screed against the mentally ill community.

The faith-based Project Semicolon has exploded into the news of late thanks to its hallmark tattoo, but the distribution and support of this video illustrates a fundamental lack of understanding about mental illness, complete with eliminationist attitudes.

We decided it was time for a line by line breakdown, featuring s.e. smith, Lisa Egan, Alice Wong of the Disability Visibility Project, and David M. Perry.

Every morning I wake up to emails and messages from humans all over the world and they’re telling me their stories.

s.e.: Fair enough. Public faces of mental health organisations and outspoken mental health advocates often receive a high volume of correspondence from people looking for support — I regularly get emails from mentally ill people and their families with a wide variety of questions.

David: Me too! But what confuses is me is where these world humans are finding Wesley Chapman? He’s best known for being the son of Dog the Bounty Hunter, a motivational speaker, and work on children’s issues. I’m confused about his sudden expertise on mental health.

Alice: I’m a huge proponent of storytelling and power of people with disabilities in creating their own narratives. So far so good…

They’re telling me about how when they were younger, they were diagnosed with some form of mental illness.

s.e.: Well, yes, mental illness usually begins to manifest in the late teens and early twenties, with some exceptions — I was first diagnosed at 15, and my diagnosis has shifted several times since then.

Lisa: I was formally diagnosed at 25, but I’d experienced depression since I was at least 15. Because of the stigma I resisted medical support and diagnoses for a long time.

Unfortunately in most of these emails and messages, they’re telling me they’re ready to give up. They’re ready to end it all.

s.e.: Depression and other mental illnesses can be exhausting, especially when paired with lack of access to treatment and ongoing social stigma. Especially among youth, suicide is a serious issue, particularly for LGBQT youth. People desperate for help reach out to any source around them in the hopes of receiving support.

David: At this point I was ready for a message about fighting stigma and building robust community supports. Go mental health awareness! Let’s help people not feel so alone!

Alice: I’m expecting a tie-in or mention of National Suicide Prevention Month and ways to help people feel connected to a larger community.

They’ve been on a treatment plan for years, but nothing seems to be working.

s.e.: Treatment-resistant mental illness is real. Every person experiences mental illness differently and managing it successfully can involve a variety of modalities including but not limited to medication, counseling, meditation, animal-mediated therapy, massage and bodywork, and whatever works for the patient.

Lisa: Yup. Been there. Citalopram made me more depressed. (This should not be seen as a statement that citalopram is bad. It made me worse. Everyone has different reactions to different drugs and some people find it very helpful.) 

They’re frustrated because their friends and their families don’t understand. Because it’s not like a broken arm or a lesion that people can see. It’s something inside.

s.e.: Absolutely. One of the most frustrating things about mental illness is the notion that ‘it’s all in your head’ and a lack of comprehension from the people around you.

Lisa: Wait, people understand broken arms? I don’t know a single person with osteogenesis imperfecta that hasn’t been kicked out of an ER when attending with a fracture for having nothing wrong with them. Later when they saw a competent doctor he or she found the patient’s fracture that was actually there.

Alice: This isn’t unique to people with mental illness—there are tons of people with chronic illness and invisible disabilities that have been talking about this issue already (e.g., spoonies on Twitter)

And they’re asking for attention and they’re asking for me to help them.

s.e.: Okay, you said that already.

David: I don’t think he’s actually going to help them.

Alice: Savior complex much? Let me guess, he’s the man with a plan?

I gotta be honest.

s.e.: Uh oh.

I’m getting tired of our society accepting these labels as an ‘identity’ to who we are.

s.e.: Record scratch. Uhm, no. Identity politics are complicated, but many disabled people find it incredibly empowering to label themselves and embrace our disabilities as part of their identities. We are not defined by our disabilities — I’m not ‘a mentally ill’ — but they are labels and we are proud of them. Particularly in a mental health context, where people sometimes struggle for years to understand why they’re having so many difficulties, getting a diagnosis can actually be a huge relief. My life totally changed when I understood that what was happening to me was not actually comparable to what the sane were experiencing, but that I could also get help to help me manage it.

Lisa: Presumably he’d like to see us locked away so society doesn’t have to accept us and our identities? Yeah, roll back progress and stop accepting us. That’ll really help people. Although…you saying that you’re tired of society being accepting will probably stop the flow to your inbox of people asking you for help cos they’ll turn to someone more supportive.

Identity is not only important for embracing yourself, it’s also important for finding “your people”: People with whom you have a shared understanding and experience. If I didn’t identify as “disabled” it’d be harder to connect with other people who go through some of the same things I do.

David: Off the rails. It happened so quickly. I agree with Lisa, maybe this is a cunning plan to get closer to inbox-zero. Who could be so callous as to tell people with psychiatric disabilities to reject their identity because he’s tired of it?

Comments like this exemplify internalized ableism (or disablism depending on your preferred terminology)—since the perceived negativity comes from the non-disabled world and systems that devalue people with mental illness.

Alice: Yes to what all of you are saying. Comments like this exemplify internalized ableism (or disablism depending on your preferred terminology)—since the perceived negativity comes from the non-disabled world and systems that devalue people with mental illness. Being free of any label or identity isn’t going to prevent others from discriminating against you.

I’m getting tired of the so-called ‘treatment plans’ not being a cure.

s.e.: No. The point of a treatment plan is to help people manage their mental illnesses so they can live full, awesome, wonderful lives. Mentally ill people don’t need to be ‘cured,’ they need to experience full social acceptance and integration into society. They deserve to be able to participate fully in social environments. The notion that mental illness needs to be ‘cured’ is exactly the same sort of attitude as that expressed above — people who think this way don’t understand mental illness.

Lisa: Yeah, it’d be nice if the anti-depressant treatments worked and I felt less crappy. But “cure” is an incredibly loaded word. I wouldn’t want a complete cure for my osteogenesis. I don’t need to be able to walk properly, I love my bent bones because I think they’re adorable, the shape of my face is a characteristic of my OI and I certainly wouldn’t want to change that. But it would be nice to never break a bone again, never dislocate a joint again and to not be in so much pain. Eliminating the breaking of bones and killing pain would require a treatment that worked rather than a full cure.

David: Again — where did this guy come from? Just such fundamental ignorance with such a pretty face, nice soundtrack, and a video with over 17,000 shares at the time of this writing.

Alice: I sometimes rail at the medicalization of my disability, especially my own plan of treatment that I have to have a doctor sign twice a year in order to receive my personal care services, but in no way do I interpret treatment plans as the chief ‘problem’ or ‘villain.’ And let’s face it—for many disabilities and mental illness there is no such thing as a cure but rather an array of different approaches in making your life more manageable that can take form in treatments, meds, therapy, etc.

I’m tried of living in a society where we become disabled by allowing these things to create a victim mentality inside of ourselves.

s.e.: No, you know what, no, just no. Disability is not about a ‘victim’ mentality because disabled people aren’t ‘victims.’ Disability is created through social constructs, not something that we do. Recognising our impairments and managing them is empowering, not self-defeating.

Lisa: I’m disabled by social barriers. That’s includes attitudinal barriers. The attitudes of people like this tosspot have a very real impact on my ability to carry out day-to-day activities. My identity as a disabled person is the opposite of being a victim. It shows strength that despite all the oppression people like this throw at me; I still keep on keeping on.

David: What’s pernicious here is that he’s adopting some of the concepts of the social model of disability, that it’s not our conditions which make us disabled, but attitudes. Except he’s turning it on disabled people themselves, rather than society.

Lisa: David, that’s really the biopsychosocial model. It’s not a sociological theory like the medical/social models but it’s a medical theory that whether or not people get better from conditions comes down to other things going their lives: Whether their housing is substandard, whether they have a strong family support network, etc. But it’s used by medical insurance companies in the US and politicians in the UK as a victim blaming tool: That people would get better if only they had the right mindset so their support can be cut down because it’s all their own fault.

Alice: So is he saying that any person who receives treatment or healthcare is a victim? Since when is utilizing services placing us in the role of a victim? Piggybacking on David’s comments, his suggestion is dangerous because it puts the blame on the individual for victimizing their own self rather than anything social or external. If you follow his logic, then individuals are to blame for their position in life.

You know it was only ten years ago that an individual in a wheelchair was asking for attention. They wanted to be noticed for being in that wheelchair.  

s.e.: I believe you are perhaps referring to the protests that pushed through the ADA? Yeah, those actually happened 25 years ago, and they involved a huge number of disabled people fighting tooth and nail for social recognition — like, uh, being noticed and treated like human beings. Since then, ADAPT and many other disability rights groups have taken to the streets, the halls of legislature, and more to fight for their rights. Considering the widespread disablism that still exists in society, damn straight we want to be noticed.

Lisa: Well if you don’t notice me, the person in a wheelchair, you tend to trip over me.

David: Damn right they want to be noticed. Oh, not for being in a wheelchair, but for being human. 

Alice: Oh, he got me! I confess—I’m addicted to attention as a wheelchair user and am ‘bound’ to my need for special privileges because I have a parking placard and a plethora of other benefits!!

They wanted special privileges.

s.e.: What the actual you know what, no. This whole ‘special privileges’ thing with regards to reasonable accommodation really chaps my hide. Disabled people want to be able to engage fully with society. Being able to enter a building, vote, attend school, work, access health care services, and the like is not a ‘special privilege.’ It’s a basic human right.

Lisa: Presumably his response to the Capitol Crawl that helped secure the ADA would’ve been to kick those fucking cripples back down the steps again as punishment for getting uppity.

David: “Special” is one of my least favorite words. My son (who has Down syndrome) doesn’t have special needs; what he has is needs. Again, though, the fundamental hatred of the disability rights movement, in which he pivots from anti-identity to anti-ADA language in two sentences, is impressively awful.

Now, that same person in a wheelchair, they’re not asking you to pay attention to their disability. They’re asking you to pay attention to their ability.

s.e.: Oh no. No, disabled people are asking that they not be defined by their disabilities — which is not the same thing as ‘let’s abolish labels!’ FYI — and that they be recognised as whole human beings. That is not at all the same as asking people to ignore their impairments or mobility aids, which is what you seem to think that we are doing. In fact, I would prefer that people operate in awareness of my impairments and accommodate me as I deserve, since I am a human being. Who has impairments.

Lisa: If you ignore my impairments, you ignore my access needs and exclude me. It’s perfectly possible to notice both my impairments and access needs arising out of them, the disabling barriers I live with day to day, and notice the things I’m capable of too. Is noticing more than one thing about a person so radical? This guy sounds like he wants all disabled people to be inspiration porn stars rather than multifaceted human beings.

David: He doesn’t actually know any disabled people, does he?

Alice: Like s.e., it chaps my hide when people try to emphasize the ‘ability’ aspect of ‘disability,’ as if they’re using a clever play on words. Having people respect me for my abilities isn’t mutually exclusive to having people see me as a disabled person. Yeesh!

So why is it as a society that we look at mental illness and we want people to be labeled, and to be put in a box and be told this is how they’re supposed to be and act?

s.e.: Because we want mentally ill people to be able to live openly and without stigma so they can access care appropriate to their needs? Because we want social supports and equal treatment? IDK.

Lisa: Erm, isn’t this guy the one telling all disabled people how to be and act? He’s the one telling us not to demand equal rights. He’s the one telling us to be all inspiration porny. He’s the one telling us to quit acting like whiny victims.

David: I’m stil confused. Are the people in wheelchairs his good models or his bad models?

Alice: Is this guy familiar with the history of self-advocacy movement by people with mental illness? People have been working toward changes and reforms in the mental health and psychiatric community that’s person-centered. Also—there are people who see positives in having mental illness—it’s part of who they are and it’s not always gloom-and-doom or something horrific.

Why is it that these treatment plans aren’t creating a solution?

s.e.: Because there is no magic bullet for mental illness.

David: Brains are complicated.

I am tired of waking up every single morning to a new story of a child that has committed suicide, to a story of a child who has shot a classmate.

s.e.: Oh no you didn’t. Did you seriously just ascribe violence to mental illness, despite ample statistics illustrating that the vast majority of mentally ill people are not violent, and when they are, the greatest risk they pose is to themselves? Despite the fact that mentally ill are an extremely escalated risk of violence? You really just went there.

I’m tired of reading about so many suicides too. Especially the ones that could have been avoided if more support had been made available.

Lisa: I’m tired of reading about so many suicides too. Especially the ones that could have been avoided if more support had been made available. In the UK there have in recent years been numerous cases of disabled people who’ve taken their lives after their income was cut off. Paul Reekie and Stephanie Bottrill are just two of many.

David: Natasha McKenna. Kajieme Powell. Sandra Bland. Just three of the names of people with psychiatric disabilities whose lives were taken by the state in the last year. Hundreds every year.

Alice: For all the reasons mentioned above by s.e., Lisa, and David, I did not like the news clip of a shooting in this section at all—nope, nopity, nope.

I’m tired of these treatment plans not working.

s.e.: If it makes you feel any better, I’m tired of people like you, so, I guess we’re even.

The stats are in.

s.e.: Which stats would these be?

Lisa: The stats that mentally ill people are more likely to be a victim of violent crime than a perpetrator?

The numbers aren’t down, they’re going up.

s.e.: Which numbers would these be?

Lisa: One number that’s not going up is the number of homicides committed by mentally ill people. That’s remained constant since the 90s.

And we are literally living in a society now that wants attention for being a victim.

s.e.: Oh you went there. Again. With the victim blaming. Yes, people who experience oppression totally just want to whine about it for attention. We live for it. It’s our sole purpose in life. Be sure to buy a t-shirt — oh, like the ones you sell.

David: This guy’s entire career is based off selling his story of overcoming a hard childhood. His website is entirely, “look at me! I am a brand! Look at me!” (No I won’t link to it for you!).

And I’m done. Enough is enough.

s.e.: With this video? I feel you, bro. Let’s just stop now.

Alice: Waiting for him to say, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

I’m on a mission.

s.e.: Oh, okay, I guess we’re not done.

David: We could not possibly be so lucky.

Not on a mission to create another ‘treatment plan.’ I’m on a mission to eradicate mental illness.

What you are advancing is eugenics. THIS IS EUGENICS.

s.e.: OKAY WAIT JUST A MINUTE HERE. I have to bring out the caps cannon, because you really just told me that you think mental illness — and by extension mentally ill people — should be ERADICATED. I was really hoping we wouldn’t have to go Godwin’s law on this one, but you know who else advocated for the eradication of mentally ill people? Hitler. Did you know that before concentration camps, the T4 program went around helpfully providing mobile ‘euthanasia’ to disabled Germans? That’s what I think of when I hear ‘eradication.’ I think of Buck v. Bell and the SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES saying that mentally ill people shouldn’t be allowed to reproduce. I think of the thousands of women — particularly women of colour — subjected to the ‘Mississippi appendectomy’ and other sterilisation procedures against their will and sometimes without their knowledge. I think of eugenics. What you are advancing is eugenics. THIS IS EUGENICS.

Lisa: This guy sounds like a fucking Dalek. “Eradicate. Eradicate.”

David: s.e. names it. We can’t be afraid to use the word “Eugenics” to call this stuff out for what it is.

Alice: The etiology of mental illnesses is complicated and still unknown—you can’t eradicate mental illness the same way you can eradicate infectious diseases like Ebola or polio. Puh-leeze. I’m also super skeeved about this 2025 date he set for this so-called eradication. What’s going to happen in 2026?

We do not need to have it in the fabric of our society in the next ten years.

s.e.: Don’t make me bring out the caps cannon again.

Science has evolved.

s.e.: Yes. Now we have amazing things like advanced treatments for mental illness and a growing understanding of the complex factors involved in the manifestation and treatment of mental illness. It’s totally fantastic, actually, to see the progress that’s happening with helping mentally ill people manage their conditions and pursue their dreams. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

Lisa: Not fast enough for my taste. Like; I’d like some painkillers that don’t make me so constipated that once the pain’s passed and the painkillers stop it’s like shitting a breezeblock. And, yes, I’d quite like an anti-depressant that actually works.

David: Speaking of pipes, we need to legalize pot.

Things that can make things much better for people with mental illness: culture change, social acceptance, integrated and coordinated care between behavioral and primary healthcare, and more funding toward community-based services and housing.

Alice: Science AND a whole lot of other things have evolved, dude! Things that can make things much better for people with mental illness: culture change, social acceptance, integrated and coordinated care between behavioral and primary healthcare, and more funding toward community-based services and housing. You know, stuff like that.

The understanding of the human mind and the human body has evolved to an all-time high.

s.e.: What is this, a brainwashing seminar?

We no longer need to use mental illness as a crutch.

s.e.: This fits in with the rest of what you’re saying in this bigoted and hateful attack on mentally ill people — that you think mentally ill people use our conditions as an excuse to avoid social responsibility. It’s also an extremely common and very damaging social attitude that makes it harder for us to seek treatment and open up for help. Those people emailing you for assistance don’t need to hear this kind of crap. They need to hear that they are valued as human beings and that their conditions — and their effects — are very real, but that there ARE options available to help them.

Lisa: Bit of a shit crutch in my eyes. If I can’t stand up cos I’ve just dislocated my knee and I try and lean on my depression: I’m just gonna splat.

David: I honestly feel like he’s trolling us, successfully, with this crutch metaphor.

Alice: s.e., Lisa, David…are we being sucked into a cult?

We don’t have to accept these labels.

s.e.: You’re right, we don’t have to accept them. I embrace my label and am mentally ill and proud.

Lisa: Yes, that’s why I tend to refute labels ascribed to me by others like “person with a disability” and find more politically powerful labels like “disabled person”. Is he suggesting everyone rejects all identities, or is it just disabled people who have to go through a delabelling? Like, do you think I’m still allowed to call myself “gay” in this guy’s brave new world? Oh, that’s right. I’d have no need for labels at all because I’ve been eradicated.

It’s time to stand up.

s.e.: Except for that wheelchair user, amirite?

Lisa: It’s a miracle!

David: A miracle people are gonna label social security/whatever-you-Brits-use fraud.

Alice: Good one, s.e.!

It’s time to create a cure.

s.e.: No, it’s time to end stigma.

It’s time to be bold enough to say it.

s.e.: Yes, because it’s super bold to advance disablist hate speech. No one does that these days. SPEAK TRUTH TO POWER.

Someone should show this guy a copy of the Daily Mail. They’ve been publishing this kind of disablist hate speech for decades.

Lisa: Someone should show this guy a copy of the Daily Mail. They’ve been publishing this kind of disablist hate speech for decades.

And it’s time to take action.

s.e.: Your call to action certainly spurred me! To organise a Revolt of the Crazies, at any rate.

Lisa: What action? Making hate speech videos? Is that gonna change the world? Or is the action just buying the T-shirts you sell. C’mon. This is just bad video making. Telling someone to take action without telling them what the action is.

David: The action is to send your money to …

This can be done. And it will be done.

s.e.: Well that sounds ominous.

David: Is it just me, or is there no actual information in this video or anywhere in the Semicolon Poject? There’s a comment in which he says, “We can correct the issue on a cellular level,” and along with the pro-science language in this video, suggests that he’s advising medical intervention to end mental illness. And yet, he’s also complaining about pharmaceutical (i.e. medical) intervention for people with mental illness. So if he’s selling something, and I have no doubt that he is, what could it be? I even tried to search for awhile and read through all the websites, and I got nothing.

Alice: Ominous indeed! The website for his organization has handy links to buy a t-shirt (step one for any meaningful advocacy) and ways to pledge a monthly amount (step two for anyone serious about eradicating this horrible, horrible disease that’s called mental illness). The sci-fi nerd in me is having lots of strange thoughts and images about his proposed cure and his eradication plan for 2025.

[text: 2025: The year of eradication]

[text: to get involved, go to ahumanproject.com]

Follow our panelists on Twitter: @sesmithwrites, @lisybabe, @sfdirewolf, @lollardfish