An overwhelmingly common reaction to violent tragedies, especially mass shootings, is to blame mental illness. There is an apparent belief that mental illness causes violence, and as a result conversations about the causes of violence and ways to prevent it end up centering on mental health care. There is a very big problem with this: mental illness does not cause violence, and perpetuating the myth that it does is actively harmful to people with mental health conditions.
Many people believe it is only possible to do such a thing if you are mentally ill. Committing violence, according to them, by definition makes you “insane.” However, mental illnesses are not defined by singular actions – they are actual real illnesses. We can observe their effects on levels of biochemicals. We can see evidence of them on brain scans. They are tangibly, physically real and are not just behaviors or thoughts. Furthermore, not everyone who commits a terrible atrocity has one of these illnesses; the overwhelming majority of violent crimes are committed by people who are not mentally ill, and the overwhelming majority of people with mental health conditions are not violent and are not any more likely than anyone else to commit a violent act.
Can 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 acts of violence? Nope.
It doesn’t seem to matter how many times I explain that mentally ill people are far more likely to be victims of violent crimes than perpetrators, or that the majority of people with mental illnesses are no more likely to be violent than people without mental illnesses, or that the vast majority of people who are violent do not have a mental illness, or how much evidence I provide; many of the people I know still insist that mental illness is to blame. When I try to talk about how untrue this is and how hurtful it is to me personally, I’m often told that I’m “being too sensitive” and am generally dismissed. At times like this it often feels like people see me as less than fully human, or think that I am a violent outburst waiting to happen – just because I have an illness – and over the course of these discussions, I often hear suggestions that mentally ill people should be locked up, forcibly medicated, put on lists, or forbidden from having children (hi there, eugenics), and I find myself feeling not only emotionally wounded but deeply afraid for my own freedom.
On top of being hurt emotionally, I’m frustrated by the way blaming mental illness for violence in society seems to be somewhat disingenuous and little more than scapegoating. Assuming they were being sincere, you would expect people to follow up blaming such violence on mental illness with demands for better and more accessible mental health care – which we desperately need, and I would be thrilled to see happen – but nothing seems to happen after the finger has been pointed. While organizations and politicians are busy blaming mental illness for crime and violence, mental health care remains unafforable, budgets are often reduced, clinics are often closed, and patients are often dumped – and this is hardly acknowledged when the next tragedy occurs and the finger pointing begins again. The people who are quick to blame mental illness for violence are usually nowhere to be found between tragedies and show very little interest in funding treatment or research, engaging in mental health advocacy and activism, or volunteering for mental health related organizations or treatment facilities. Honestly, they rarely seem interested in even showing care and support for the mentally ill people in their own lives.
It also disturbs me that it would be so easy for so many people to dismiss my second amendment rights while fervently defending those rights for themselves; if you are willing to say the second amendment doesn’t apply to me, what other constitutional rights and legal protections would you be willing to deny me? This especially troubles me because one of the primary arguments against gun control is the use of firearms for self defense – and mentally ill people are exponentially more likely than the general population to be the victims of crimes. The need to defend ourselves, in addition to the fear of being stigmatized or forcibly hospitalized, is another reason why mentally ill people may be further discouraged from seeking treatment by this rhetoric (and any laws based based on this premise) – especially when you consider that police often do not believe mentally ill people when they report crimes and frequently end up shooting the mentally ill people they come into contact with, especially if they are in crisis. I wholeheartedly believe it is possible to create reasonable regulations on gun ownership which may consider mental health status, but if we are going to discuss preventing mentally ill people from owning firearms we need to avoid making sweeping, stigmatizing generalizations, and we need to have this conversation with care. These other problems must be effectively addressed, we should be extremely careful about the precedents we set in the process, and we need to be aware that such restrictions will not solve the problem of gun violence in general.
Facing the reality that people who are not mentally ill, people who are largely “normal,” are capable of extreme violence can be difficult, but we need to face that truth. It can be comforting to believe that, with the exception of mental illness, humans are rational creatures – but we’re not. It can be frightening for people who do not have a mental health condition to imagine experiencing things typically associated with mental illness, like hallucinations – but many do – and those experiences do not make them dangerous or violent either. Believing in a wall that clearly separates “crazy” from “not crazy,” and then blaming the people on the “crazy” side for violence, makes violence seem predictable and makes possible solutions to such violence seem rather simple (although often horrible), and this can restore the feeling of order and sense in the universe which extreme violence steals from us – but this is an entirely false sense of security. Tearing down that wall means giving up these inaccurate beliefs, accepting that you too may be more “crazy” than you’d like to admit, recognizing that that all people (not just mentally ill people) have some capacity for violence and that mental illness is not a sufficient explanation, and then considering new possible solutions – and that can be overwhelming, but it is the crucial first step towards truly solving the problem of widespread violence.
The fact of the matter is that there is no one single cause of violence, the underlying causes of violence are complicated, and reducing violence is going to be a long-term challenge. There is not going to be a simple solution. But the good news is there are already people working on discovering and studying the factors which can lead to violence and preparing the way for possible solutions. Some of those factors include the “frustrated entitled,” “toxic masculinity,” exposure to violence, and substance abuse. As we let go of our misconceptions about the causes of violence and improve our understanding of factors which are currently contributing to violence improves, we will get better at mitigating their effects and protecting future generations from them, and violence will continue declining.
While we’re at, hopefully we can work on reducing the stigma around mental illness by ceasing to perpetuate myths about mental illness and violence as well as improving representations of mentally ill people in media, and we can improve our mental health care system and encourage and support people in seeking treatment.