18 May Mentally Ill People Are Not More Violent
Mentally Ill People Are Not More Violent
They were volunteers for the day at a community center I go to for people with mental health issues. I was giving them a tour before they started their tasks. One woman seemed twitchy and nervous and looked at me with wide eyes. She knew I was a member, which meant she knew that I had a diagnosis of a mental illness. At the end of the tour, I asked if there were any questions. Apparently, her fear overcame her courtesy. She rudely asked me what my diagnosis was. I considered her for a second, and then decided to tell her, if for no other reason than to show her a schizophrenic can be calm, reasonable, and together. I told her. Then she continued to be rude. She asked about the threat of violence at the center. I considered going into a long-winded explanation about the harmful myths connecting mental illness and violence. But I decided a little shock would be best. I simply said, “Once, a few years ago, I saw someone give another member a little push. That’s it.” She appeared relieved, and showed no evidence of picking up on my irony.
In my experience, when you are othered, those in the group doing the othering respond in one of five different ways. Some are heedless of the line between “us” and “them” and just treat you as they would anyone else. Others notice the line, but magnanimously and respectfully reach over it to treat you as an equal. Three responses involve some degree of dehumanization. One such group pities you, and a second ignores you and ices you out. The third group, subconsciously or consciously; overtly, covertly, or both; to your face, behind your back, or both; sabotages you, sometimes brutally.
The woman in the example above was overtly sabotaging me by reducing me to a cultural stereotype—but, frankly, it wasn’t that big of a deal. She only hurt my feelings. Things get dicey when the one sabotaging you is an employer, landlord, police officer, or someone who likes to beat up “weird” people. I have also experienced people sabotaging me by badmouthing me to my friends, and one person, from what I can tell, successfully turned some friends on me. What motivated her? I suspect basic meanness, and some people feel free to be mean to us because we are other.
Are seriously mentally ill people more violent than the rest of the population? If so, just barely, according to a 2015 report by the National Institute of Health. And this report does show that any link established is complicated by the sad fact that many people with mental illness have substance abuse problems, a history of trauma, and live in violence-prone neighborhoods—all of which make anyone, whether or not they have mental illness, more prone to violence. The study concludes that about 4% of violence can be directly attributed to mental illness, and we make up about 4% of the population. Meanwhile, according to the Department of Justice, 15% of all violence occurs between romantic partners. Perhaps we should stigmatize all people in love as dangerously and potentially violent. Yeah, that would make sense.
I realize that interpreting statistics accurately is difficult, and I am hardly a pro at it. But this all says to me that there is nowhere near a definitive link between mental illness and a propensity for violence. Other factors in a person’s life, such as being a victim of trauma or being in love, perhaps prime certain people for violence more than does mental illness. The stereotype is undeserved.
Yet it goes on and on, and the news media are the worst offenders. After the recent mass killing in Boulder, CO, CBS news talked to the brother of the alleged killer. The brother reported that he was isolated, angry, paranoid, and had mental illness. What does CBS do with this news? It writes in big letters on the screen “mental illness” and “paranoid.” Why didn’t they write “angry” and “isolated,” which may have been the cause of the rampage, rather than something inherent in mental illness? The short answer is money. I will explain.
The news media makes money by attracting viewers and then selling advertising time to companies who hope to sell products to those viewers. They attract viewers, in part, by scaring them. There is plenty of evidence that people who regularly watch the news perceive the world as more dangerous than it really is. (See this BBC article.) The news implicitly claims that it is protecting us by alerting us to dangers. So CBS news, in the example above, is willing to sacrifice the well-being of the 4% of the population with serious mental illness, a group already shirked and misunderstood, by stereotyping them in the name of scaring viewers, thereby increasing ratings. The news media clearly doesn’t care about the harm it is doing to us. They are being bullies. This is just one example of how quickly the news media links violence to mental illness, even when there is no clear evidence of such a link.
Part of the problem is that the stigma becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Those of us with a diagnosis who have been blessed with the education to allow us to articulate the problems with this stereotyping remain silent for fear of being stigmatized. How many employers would retain even a long-term, trusted employee if they found out she had schizophrenia? Of course, they couldn’t fire her for a medical diagnosis. That’s illegal. They would just cook up some other reason.
I am writing this blog post under an assumed name so that, if I need to look for another job, a potential future employer couldn’t Google me and find out I have a diagnosis.
I will end by returning to the woman who stereotyped me at the community center. I give her credit: she overcame her obvious fear enough to actually show up and volunteer, even if she did so awkwardly. What do the people think who would never set foot in such a place?