The politics of disclosure

When Liberal MP Andrew Laming disclosed his ADHD diagnosis last month, it was in order to explain predatory behaviour. Allegations against him included abusing his constituents online, taking sensitive photos without consent, bullying, harassment, stalking. Beyond the ‘empathy training’ he was ordered to undergo, Laming sought the advice of an ADHD specialist (a relative of an acquaintance) and commenced treatment.

Laming has stated  that ADHD in ‘no way’ excuses his behaviour. However, he did talk about it as though ADHD made him unable to control himself:

Within 24 hours, I just had a completely different sense of time. The ideas that rage in my head were all back in their drawers and just letting me go to sleep … There will be many others out there who are living with a behemoth inside them that they’re just not able to control.

Blaming bad behaviour on ‘madness’ – whether in the form of a diagnosis of mental illness, or of neurodiversity like ADHD or autism – is deeply problematic. It distorts the reality that mental illness is more commonly correlated with being a victim of violence than the perpetrator. It unfairly stigmatises those who live with these conditions as out-of-control individuals. It is used as a scapegoat to avoid tacking the actual causes of bad behaviour – in Laming’s case, misogyny, and an inability to cope with the fact that people on the internet disagree with his political views.

Blaming madness is also an expedient strategy available only to the very few. For some, mental health issues and neurodiversity can be used as a weapon, a way of avoiding public scrutiny. For most others, mental illness and neurodiversity are more likely to be weaponised against them. They can be used to discredit testimony and political action, to discriminate and to violate rights.

It’s a cruel irony that Laming is able to seek forgiveness in light of his recent diagnosis when we contrast this the treatment of ‘Kate’.

Before her death, Kate alleged that former Attorney-General Christian Porter sexually assaulted her. By the time these allegations came to public light, Kate was already dead, but right-wing commentators still took it upon themselves to try to discredit her on the basis that she had bipolar disorder. The suggestion was that she could have ‘imagined’ the whole thing.

This is not how bipolar works – delusions are neither this detailed, nor enduring. Likewise, ADHD doesn’t cause stalking or lack of empathy. I have been diagnosed with both of these conditions, and I find these rough understandings offensive and mystifying.

What we can observe from the contrasting treatments of Andrew Laming, Christian Porter and Kate is that disclosure does not mean the same thing for all people. While a woman lost her life, it was Porter who got to be tearful at a press conference, ask for compassion, and go on mental health leave ‘for the sake of his sanity’.

In October of last year, James Packer faced questioning at the independent inquiry into Crown casinos. Asked why his testimony could be trusted after his casino had been embroiled in money laundering and corruption scandals and he had sent a string of threatening emails, he responded: ‘Because I’m being treated now for my bipolar.’ Packer got to have it both ways: he disclosed his diagnosis to explain or excuse his behaviour, and invoked the fact that he is in treatment to stake a claim of reliability and personal growth.

This contrasts with many other public cases. When Greta Thunberg disclosed that she is autistic, for example, it immediately became political ammunition against her. It was used as evidence that her cause isn’t valid, that she was ‘deeply disturbed’. She has explained that she deliberately hadn’t disclosed it earlier, not out of shame, but because she was aware that it would limit her opportunities, and people could frame it in a negative light.

Britney Spears is another public figure who has had her mental health used against her. Because of ‘mental illness’ she has been under conservatorship since 2008. She is not a legal adult. Her father controls her finances and private life. Her mental health might be used to explain public meltdowns, but she doesn’t get the opportunity to talk about it through a lens of personal growth. She doesn’t get to speak at all.

Disclosure is unevenly risky. The consequences for Britney Spears are extreme, but far from uncommon among non-celebrities. The documentary, Persona: The Dark Truth Behind Personality Tests shows how people profiled as having a mental illness or being neurodivergent can be systematically excluded from employment. These tests are often forms of surreptitious forced disclosure – you either have to lie, or employers infer that you’re not the kind of person they want working for them without having to explicitly discriminate.

Research by SANE Australia has found that 70 per cent of people with complex mental health issues have faced stigma and discrimination over the 12 months before completing the survey. Alongside workplace discrimination, people with mental illness are also more likely to face discrimination in the private rental market. Discrimination exists in the form of state violence like involuntary treatment, restrictive practices like seclusion and restraint, and getting subjected to the torture of ‘behaviour modification’ in the guise of therapy or education.

Being able to safely disclose neurodiversity and mental illness is a privilege. My own ability to write about these experiences is due to fact that I enjoy a number of privileges. Even so, I am aware that sanism and neurotypicalism mean that disclosure has meant, and continues to mean that my capacity to make decisions is questioned, and that my accounts will not always be considered trustworthy. When I have experienced sexual harassment in a treatment setting, I haven’t told anyone or done anything about it because I knew that my diagnoses meant I wouldn’t be believed.

For as long as there are unsafe consequences to disclosure, public accounts of these identities will always be lacking. They will always be told from the perspective of people who can get away with it.

Increasingly, the story of mental illness and neurodivergence is told by people who are in the even more unusual position of being able to leverage it to some advantage. To get away with dodgy business practices, to avoid difficult consequences – hard questions and job losses. All of this is incredibly galling for those for whom compassion, or the benefit of the doubt, or basic rights have been revoked in the wake of disclosure.


Image by Anna Blazhnova

Erin Stewart

Erin Stewart is a writer based in Canberra. She tweets at @xerinstewart

More by Erin Stewart ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays