I heard of a faith-based group that had an individual who was disruptive… and somehow this led to discussions about “mental health.” But let’s slow down for a moment… there are more complex issues involved. “Boycott normal” also means being more conscious about who and how the boundaries of “normal” are set.

[This is a draft 10/12 check back later for changes.]

MindFreedom has launched a Boycott Normal campaign.

But who is it exactly that decides what is normal?

Let’s look at churches and libraries for a moment.

I’ve heard of a faith-based group that gathers each week for a fairly calm and tranquil Sunday worship service.

Apparently there was a verbal disruption of some kind by an individual during a service. I wasn’t there, so I’d rather not go into specifics.

I understand that the congregation began discussing the disruption in terms of “mental health” context. When a mental health action group was formed, there was even an interest in keeping it closed, perhaps because organizers felt this and similar controversies needed to be addressed.

But I question why group discussions about disruptive behavior would automatically be put into a ‘mental disability’ context.

I suggest churches think about the example of libraries for a moment. It could be a lesson to us about putting all or most behavioral disruption issues into the ‘mental health’ box as a first choice.

Let me explain.

Obviously, we can all imagine situations where there may be a ‘mental label’ connected to a disruption, such as in certain circumstances we’ve all heard about regarding some individuals diagnosed with Tourette’s where a person shouts out (recognizing there’s a lot of diversity and compmlexity among those with that diagnosis).

But how do we come up with the boundaries of acceptable behavior in the first place?

Consider what has happened at some libraries in the 21st century. Remember, libraries are traditionally the place you hear “Sh-h-h-h-h!”

Some libraries in the USA are increasingly having ‘customers’ who are homeless, getting in out of the cold, dealing with significant challenges in their daily lives. Libraries are getting more crowded. They’re becoming social centers.

And so some libraries are addressing disruption. And unfortunately some have addressed this as a “mental health” issue.

But it turns out that this is limiting at a library, and it’s fairly easy to see why.:

For instance:

  • Anyone from any walk of life can some day at some time, ‘step over the line’ of what is acceptable (especially anyone who ever drinks!).
  • Often, when some strange in public steps over the line, we do not know if they have officially received any kind of diagnosis of a ‘psychiatric disorder.’ But in terms of going over the line, having such a label should not matter. The rules ought to apply to everyone, and not be based on a perceived ‘disability.’
  • In terms of intervening, yes, of course, we need to be smart, smart, smart, and this might include an individual’s mental and emotional challenges. But when it comes to the boundary itself, the rules ought to apply to everyone.

This complexity can be easier to see at a library, than a church.

Libraries more and more have a bigger mix of people, including people getting warm… and also those meeting other young friends… or listening to something on headphones on the Internet… etc.


  • Some libraries have Internet access for a set period of time, to allow sharing. And when one individual is asked to leave after their allotted time, he or she may get grumpy, even loud, and even swear at each other or staff.
  • Some libraries may have workers who are walking through a quiet area talking, which doesn’t happen as much in a church.
  • Some libraries may have a person talking loudly into their cell phone, and getting belligerent when asked to get off.

Clearly the above behavior is over the line, but no mental label may necessarily be involved… The person may have a dozen so-called ‘reasons’ why he or she may be thoughtless or grumpy or rude (though, really, there’s no excuse).

So let’s not just jump into the deep end of the mental health pool!

Who Sets the “Norm” in a Church?

This diversity of reasons for disruption can be more difficult to see in a church, where people are often pretty nice, polite, perhaps kind of middle class. 

A so-called ‘nice’ church will less likely have disruptive behavior from a bunch of marginalized folks talking loudly in cell phones and yelling at each other!

A so-called ‘nice’ church is even more likely to have so-called ‘nice quiet’ janitors!

If a church constituency were more like the library, far more diverse, more marginalized, where more people maybe didn’t quite ‘get’ or accept the common acceptable rules of middle class behavior, etc. etc. etc….

Then it would be more obvious that this is about BEHAVIOR, and not LABEL.

Anyone can have that ‘bad’ day and ‘go over an acceptable line.’ So the discussion ought to start on things like ‘what is that line, how flexible is it.’ The line ought to apply to everyone.

I’ve read a book about mental disabilities and faith groups, that brought up some thoughtful issues involving ‘behavioral’ issues, such as people diagnosed with developmental disabilities, or with phobias, etc.

Interesting thoughtful book. But I think this book missed the point.

One example:

The book said an ‘acceptable’ behavior would be an individual questioning the minister’s sermon afterwards, during coffee.

But ‘unacceptable’ would be calling out during the service – clearly ‘over the line.’

Okay, that makes sense. At first.

But frequently at a church that has a fairly middle-class population, I’ll hear someone call out when the minister is ‘on.’ However, the comment is typically sweet, acceptable, funny, and quick, in a way that ‘knows the dance.’ That is, for instance, the comment is correcting important information. Or it’s just a little funny.

For instance, I heard a minister say something about turning off all electronic technology to prevent disruption of the sound system, and someone stage-whispered “hearing aids, too?” There was quick gentle laughter at this sweet joke, if it was a joke. In any case, no one got exercised about it, or saw it as over the line or a ‘mental disability.’

So it’s not as simple as saying “We have zero tolerance for anyone ever speaking out ever when the minister is speaking…” It’s obviously more complicated. It has to do when someone else’s experience is compromised by someone going over the line, which can be more subtle.

So really, a group needs to figure out its boundaries.

The acceptable boundary of behavior is not as obvious as some folks might think…. especially middle class folks, who kind of subconsciously “know” what is considered “okay” or not.

If someone in a congregation disrupts in an unacceptable way… It’s ‘sanist’ to automatically assume that this is from some kind of ‘psychiatric disorder.’

There are people who disrupt in the library all the time, who have zero labels… They’re just tough enough, or marginalized enough, or distressed enough, or obnoxious enough… That he or she may yell into cell phones and then swear at staff when asked to be silent.

There’s no excuse for that, and that’s the point.

Just because we have a mental disability label does not ‘excuse’ going over the line that applies to everyone. We shouldn’t demonize someone who goes over the line, but we also ought to have some level of accountability that applies to everyone.

The above points are more obvious in a diverse setting like a library. However, we’ve seen libraries address disruptions as a ‘mental illness,’ too.

We ought to instead address how we all can work better with people who are very distressed or disruptive, for any reason. We ought to look how we can all address those are not following acceptable, fair, clear community guidelines that apply to us all.

I am not an expert, but this more complex approach would involve things like first figuring out what are our boundaries of behavior, and how we arrived at that. We would also learn de-escalation, and mediation. We would learn when to take care of the problem ourselves, or ignore it, or ask for help.

We could also learn more about what possible compassionate, smart, but fair intervention might work for different circumstances

We would finally begin to talk about who forms our ‘norm’ and how and is it fair and should it be changed?

For instance, I’ve heard a point raised by a person with what would be considered diverse background… that services at some churches are too tame… “Where is the rocking music, the non-European heritage music, drums….?” Some people even like to have services where it’s okay for an individual to jump in the air, call out and even literally roll on the ground.

At other churches, mosques or synagogues that leaping just is not acceptable.

In other words, the ‘norm’ for a church isn’t God given! Any group actually creates its norm, either consciously or not, either democratically or not.

And sure, there are obvious guidelines for a group — no hitting. But there are less obvious ones — like, say, no crying. Why doesn’t anyone hardly ever weep in groups?

My mom, who is 94, said growing up, at a movie theater, it was as common to see an audience weep as it would be to laugh!

Now at a movie we hear a chuckle from a crowd… and someone touching a tear from the corner of their eye… and a sniffle….

No one ever wrote down a rule “no crying.” But society is following that unwritten rule more and more.

These are all complex questions:

  • What are the boundaries of behavior?
  • How can we all work together to decide this.
  • How can we address problems when individuals go over those boundaries?

It’s too simple to just immediately go to the “mental health” box and assume that someone who we feel is disruptive would automatically be addressed with a “mental health” approach.

If we do that, then it means that mental health professionals are the ones primarily in charge of addressing behavior out of the norm.

While their advice is important for a lot of tasks, it’s ‘we the people’ who ought to be coming up with what is acceptable, or not.

Our freedom can be at stake. A church that claims to be ‘welcoming’ may suddenly find it is excluding people from groups simply because they are, say, an activist to change the mental health system!

The “norm” is something that ought to be set with democracy in mind…

And we all ought to get more hands on in addressing what to do when people go over those boundaries.

Boycott Normal really is about democracy getting hands on with addressing issues of mental and emotional problems, and differences.

Document Actions