Home // Medicine and psychiatry // Violence, Mental Illness, Assumptions, and Stigma

Violence, Mental Illness, Assumptions, and Stigma

In the wake of the horrifying shooting at the Sandy Hook primary school in Conneticut there has, of course, been a lot of talk about “mental illness”. This man did something that to all of us seems “crazy”, and the natural response therefore is to think he must be mentally ill. However, as I noted with regard to Anders Breivik, that is something that – while possibly correct – should not be assumed.

Then I read a piece entitled ‘I am Adam Lanza’s Mother’. It bothered me: the assumptions it made about Lanza, and about mental illness; and what she wrote – and how she wrote – about her son.

Then, tweeted by Vaughan Bell, I saw something I liked much better; as Bell wrote: “A much needed reply appears”

Pease read it. I will quote here two of the bullet points. They are all good and important, but these two are the ones that I really want to emphasise:

3) The article complains about mental illness stigma while reinforcing it by explicitly tying it to violence, and in particular, mass killings. The reality is that there is no such observed link: “after analysing a number of killers, Mullen concludes, ‘they had personality problems and were, to put it mildly, deeply troubled people.’ But he goes on to add: ‘Most perpetrators of autogenic massacres do not, however, appear to have active psychotic symptoms at the time and very few even have histories of prior contact with mental health services.’” And most people with mental illness are not violent, although they are far more likely to be victims of crime (see here, for instance).

4) The article, with this link established, implies a desire to stop violent crime allegedly perpetrated by those with mental illness shoul motivate better care and provision for those with mental illness, and not, say, the lower life expectancy, unemployment, isolation, suicidality, homelessness, victimization or in general the suffering endured by those with it. The continual disregard for this reality perpetuates stigma on all levels of society and further exposes those with mental illness to harm.

And for something more on the “how she wrote it” side of that post, there is this discussion of other posts by the same blogger.

The only “simple” thing about this shooting is that it was awful and horrifying. The motivation/s, the antecedents, the mental state of the killer – at the time, and leading up to it: these things are not simple, and we might well never really know with certainty (especially his mental state). It does no good, and does real harm, to assume mental illness simply because a person does something we don’t understand, and can’t imagine ourselves doing. That is not the same thing as having a psychiatric illness, and equating them just does not serve any useful purpose. What it does do, is further increase the stigma, discrimination, hatred, and consequent violence suffered by people with psychiatric illnesses: people who already face a great deal of that on top of distressing and debilitating illnesses, which if they weren’t bad enough in themselves, carry increased risk for just about everything you care to name, and mean they will die an average of a quarter of a century earlier than the rest of the population.

Lets not make it worse by shouting “crazy!”, “insane!”, “mentally ill!” every time someone commits horrific violence. Without even knowing if that was the case.

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