I avoid my personal social media every time a mass murder happens, because the response of many people I know (and would prefer not to remove from my life, at least for now) is to widely blame mental illness, and being a person with mental health conditions, that reaction is very upsetting to me.
Do mental health problems play a role in things like this? Sure. Do we need better, more accessible mental health care? Absolutely. Do mental health conditions cause these things?
No, they do not.
Mental illness is not defined by singular actions. Somebody who violently harms another person is probably not psychologically well, but that does not necessarily mean they have a mental illness. To say that any psychological issue = mental illness is as inaccurate as saying any tumor = cancer.
Mental illnesses are actual real illnesses, caused by biochemical and neurological complications. We still need to do a lot more research to understand them, but we know that they are real, like any other illness. We can observe them in neurochemical processes. We can see them on brain scans. They are tangibly, physically real and are not just behaviors or thoughts – and not everyone who commits a terrible atrocity has one of these illnesses, and the overwhelming majority of people with mental health conditions are not violent and are statistically not any more likely than anyone else to commit a violent act.
Words like “psychopathic,” “psychotic,” “insane,” or even “crazy” mean things and have long, ugly histories of being used (or abused) to hurt and ignore people. It is hurtful to people who experience these things to use these words thoughtlessly, casually, and inaccurately. If you are not a mental health professional, you should not be armchair diagnosing people, because you are likely contributing to common misconceptions about these words and participating in stigmatizing these people.
There are things about myself that I am afraid to admit to people I know, especially online, because of the way these words are used. Some of the words that get thrown around are applicable to me and my health conditions. It makes me wonder what you think of me. It makes me wonder if you actually care about me. It makes me wonder if you actually see me as fully human, or if you respect me less just because I have an illness.
And when I try to explain this to people, I get spoken down to. I get ignored. I get told that I’m being too sensitive. It doesn’t matter if I explain why these things are inaccurate or I provide evidence of what I’m saying – I get dismissed and told that I simply have to accept these horrible generalizations. And I wonder if I would get ignored or spoken to the same way if people didn’t know that I have mental health issues.
People with mental health conditions are often vulnerable, and we are much, MUCH more likely to the victim of a crime than a perpetrator, as well as being more likely to be the victim of a crime than people without mental illnesses (especially since predatory people are generally aware that mentally ill people are exceptionally vulnerable and are generally distrusted and disbelieved by the wider population).
Some illnesses make people more sensitive to the subtle messages society feeds us. Some illnesses cause people to feel threatened at times when they are not actually in danger. Some illnesses make it very difficult for people to control their impulses. However, illnesses are not the sole cause for behaviors. Mental health problems do not exist in a vacuum, and mentally ill people are not defined solely by their illnesses. There are reasons a mentally ill person may feel endangered, there are reasons a mentally ill person may have a particular impulse, and there are reasons that some people with a given illness may behave in particular ways while another person with the same illness may not. For the most part, it’s no different than the way you will have different reactions and impulses and behaviors from the people around you.
We have agency and make choices, just like everyone else – for some people, those choices are just influenced in a different way. If the illness were to blame, we would expect these behaviors to be the same across the board for all people with the illness – but that’s not what happens; behaviors like violence follow the same patterns in mentally ill people that they do in people without mental illnesses.
If you are worried about the way mental health problems may impact things like crime and violence, focus on funding research and widening access to care while raising awareness on the needs of mentally ill people and educating people on how to be caring and supportive so that mentally ill people don’t have to be afraid of talking about their struggles and seeking help. Encourage people to listen, and understand, instead of fear and ignore.
Blaming every mass shooting or other atrocity on “the mentally ill” (as if we were a different species – extremely dehumanizing) accomplishes the very opposite of this. We like to pretend fear will motivate people to give money to causes and pass helpful legislation, but that’s not what happens. People aren’t inclined to help the people they fear. People are inclined to hide from and ignore – or worse, eliminate – the people that they fear. History has demonstrated this quite thoroughly. So if your concern is genuinely getting help to vulnerable people, stigmatizing us further by linking our existence with horrific events is not going to help your cause. It just makes the majority of other people feel justified in hating us and wanting to remove us from society.
If it’s more important to you to be able to blame “the mentally ill” than prevent the things you’re blaming us for (which would require BOTH actually doing things to help AND examining the cultural factors that may encourage violence), then I’m inclined to think you’re just scapegoating us so that you don’t have to reflect on other things that might contribute to people doing horrible things and your own role and responsibility in preventing violence, and maybe you should go do some soul searching.
Also, fun fact: Autism spectrum and developmental disorders are not the same thing as mental illnesses. Both relate to the brain, but are distinct. Calling them the same thing is like asthma and emphysema the same thing because they both affect the lungs.
P.S. If you think all mentally ill people should be ‘on a list’ or ‘locked up’ or ‘not allowed to have kids’ – this has been tried before, and fails every time, and is rooted in eugenics – and those are awful terrible horrible things to say and believe.
For information supporting the points made here, please see the links in the related paragraph in my post on #YesAllWomen.