Is Mel Gibson "Mad"? (And does it matter?)

(This post explores the links between mental illness and abuse. The convoluted link between anger and abuse will be explored in a later post.)
The media these past few weeks has been repeatedly playing taped phone conversations where the famous actor/director/producer Mel Gibson can be heard ranting at his ex-partner Oksana Grigorieva. In these tapes Gibson (who first came to prominence playing “Mad Max” – a character who struggles to survive in a violent post-apocalyptic desert world where he is law unto himself) comes across as unhinged and very threatening. His threats include saying he will bury Grigorieva “in a rose garden.” The tapes also seem to prove that Gibson hit Grigorieva in the face hard enough to damage her teeth – while she was holding their baby in her arms. His rants are full of racist and misogynist slurs, and one of his favourite words seems to be c***.

In one of the tapes, Grigorieva can be heard saying to Gibson: “You need medication.”

All of this led to ask: “Mel Gibson: Mentally Ill or Maybe Just a Jerk?”

Gibson disclosed in 2008 that he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Could this help explain his horrid behaviour? Perhaps. Anyone who has seen someone in the throes of a manic episode knows the possible volatility of the situation. But in Gibson’s case, one would first need to determine whether he actually has the disorder. (Giving a client a mental health diagnosis is often a very subjective endeavour. Just because one shrink diagnosed you with something does not necessarily mean that you actually have it.) And even if it is established that Gibson does in fact have this disorder, one must then assess the role that this illness plays in his abusive behaviour. Do Gibson’s outbursts occur exclusively during manic episodes? If not, then there is more that is driving his behaviour, and the diagnosis just serves as an excuse. Finally, we should remember that having a mental illness and being a jerk are not mutually exclusive conditions. It is totally possible to have one and be the other.

In the meantime, it is critical to keep in mind that most acts of abuse are perpetrated by men who have no diagnosed mental illness, and that the fields of psychology and psychiatry have been remarkably ineffective when it comes to solving the problem of domestic violence perpetration. It is also critical to keep in mind that in the midst of an abusive episode, the abuser’s mental status is, for the most part, irrelevant. What matters is that he stop. And that if he will not – or cannot – stop, then he must be stopped.

Only after the danger is eliminated and the people he is targeting made safe does the etiology of the behaviour become worth exploring. And if mechanisms for containing the abuser and for ensuring his victims’ safety are not in place, then his abusive behaviour will most likely continue – regardless of its roots.

The dentist who fixed Grigorieva’s teeth had it right. He was so concerned about her that he offered her and her baby a safe place to stay. He saw in front of him a woman who was in trouble, and, rather than waste much time worrying about whether Gibson was mentally ill, whether he was on drugs, whether he was drinking, whether he had a bad day at the office or a bad childhood, the dentist offered concrete assistance to the person Gibson had victimized. And in the case of domestic violence, concrete action to help the people who are being harmed should always trump speculation about the perpetrator’s mindset.