Can Learned Behavior Masquerade as a Mental Illness?

August 10, 2020 Laura A. Barton

Mental health stigma not only changes how we perceive people, but it also changes the perception of learned behavior. When we take a deeper dive into behaviors that are written off with the excuse of the person doing them being "unstable" or with even harsher language, such as "psycho," it becomes clearer how mental health stigma can mask learned poor behaviors.

Mental Health Stigma and Learned Behaviour: How Can One Relate to the Other?

I started thinking about the relationship between mental health stigma and learned behavior after I saw a post on Facebook from a woman who shared her experience with a man from a dating app. Although she had stopped talking to him and showed no further interest, he tracked down her workplace and showed up uninvited because he still wanted to talk to her, feeling this was an appropriate way to express his interest. It almost instantly brought to mind a situation from my childhood that I could see as being a parallel to this.

When I was in elementary school, there was a boy in my grade that followed me around one recess. Even after I told him to leave me alone, he continued to follow me, so I went to the teacher on duty. That teacher's reply was, "It just means he likes you," and she did nothing more. The boy didn't get spoken to. I'm sure others have stories like this.

The Facebook post from the first situation didn't go into a discussion of our perception of one behavior over the other, but it got me thinking. How do our reactions vary between these two situations?

In the first story, you might think the guy was just a "psycho stalker" or "unstable" since he thought his behavior acceptable ("Coping with Stalking and Stalkers—Getting Help"). In the second, it might be passed off as "cute" or "boys will be boys." But therein lies the problem; one can lead to the other, teaching that this behavior of persuing someone unwantedly is okay. When we teach from a young age that this is acceptable, it's no wonder that it sticks with people into adulthood. I don't mean that as an excuse, though, because the behavior isn't excusable.

Reflecting on why people behave the way they do is useful, but it's more likely that these kinds of incidents will be seen as unrelated. Rather than looking at it as a systematic issue of how we're raising children and the messages we're sending at a young age, society likes to pretend that this kind of behavior has something to do with the individual's mental state. This goes back to the mental health stigma that says people with mental illnesses are unsafe, irrational individuals, and the words we use to convey that ("Language Can Stigmatize People with Mental Illness").

Question the World Lens Influenced by Mental Health Stigma

The lens through which we view the world is influenced by mental health stigma and the people in it, and the above example is just one of the many ways it does that. Because of the existing, although false, notion that people with mental illnesses are "unstable" or "psycho," the mental health stigma changes the perception of even learned behaviors. In many cases, stigma deflects to the point that the idea of a behavior being learned isn't even on people's radars at all.

When our minds jump to blaming a mental health condition for someone's behavior, it's important to pause and consider if stigma is in play and what it might be causing us to overlook. In doing that, we can change our perceptions and filter out mental health stigma.

APA Reference
Barton, L. (2020, August 10). Can Learned Behavior Masquerade as a Mental Illness?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, April 15 from

Author: Laura A. Barton

Laura A. Barton is a fiction and non-fiction writer from Ontario, Canada. Follow her writing journey and book love on Instagram, and Goodreads.

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