Violent Crimes and Mental Illness

16 Dec

In the wake of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, there’s been a lot of talk about mental health. Comments like, “Now is the time to talk about mental illness!” and “We need mental healthcare reform NOW before this happens again!” are littering my Facebook and Twitter feeds. Many people, people that I care about and whose opinion I respect, want to use this tragedy as an opportunity to talk about how America’s mental healthcare system needs to change.

But you know what? Now is not the time to talk about that.

Don’t get me wrong, I am hugely in favour of mental healthcare reform, both here in Canada and in America. We need better access to mental health professionals, and shorter wait times to see the ones that are available. We need to end the system of patient abuse that occurs in group homes across the country. We need to make therapy and expensive medications more accessible to people who may not have a steady income. We need to increase the monthly payments to those who are too ill to work, because what they receive now from the government is not enough to live on.  We need to give people with mental illnesses the tools they need to advocate for themselves, and we need to work towards ending the stigma that comes with the term “mental illness”.

I do believe that talking about our mental healthcare system is something that we need to do, and badly.

What we don’t need to do is conflate mental illness with shooting 20 small children.

See, the thing is, mental illness is a pretty broad umbrella term that covers all kinds of things. Depression is a mental illness. So are anxiety, anorexia nervosa, bulimia, PTSD, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, obsessive compulsive disorder, and many, many other things. And yes, some symptoms caused by some of those illnesses can cause violence, but, given the fact that 1 in 4 Americans suffer from a diagnosable mental illness in any given year, I think that we can safely say that most people who are mentally ill are not prone to going on shooting sprees. In fact, studies have shown that people living with mental illness are four times as likely to be the victim of violence.

It has recently been reported that Adam Lanza was, according to his brother Ryan, suffering from both Asperger’s syndrome (which is on the autism spectrum) and a personality disorder. However, according to the same report, the brothers hadn’t been in contact since 2010, and it is currently unknown whether Adam Lanza had received further diagnoses since then. But the term “mentally ill” was being tossed around for a while before Ryan Lanza’s statements were made public, and, from what I can see, there is still a lot of assumption going on about what Adam might or might not have suffered from.

I know that most of the people who want to talk about mental illness right now are good people. Like the rest of us, they’re trying to figure out what just happened and why, so that we can make sure that we never have to live through a tragedy like this again. I’m sure that these people think that it’s kinder, more humane to say that Adam Lanza was mentally ill, rather than just calling him a monster. Unfortunately, what they’re actually doing is making mental illness the scapegoat here. What they’re doing is adding to the stigma that surrounds mental illness.

At the end of the day, saying things like, “Now is the time to talk about mental illness,” is not going to help anything. It’s not going to make an event like this less likely to happen again. In fact, if anything, by continuing to spin the narrative that the mentally ill are violent killers, you are probably making it less likely for those with mental health issues to seek treatment. By making mental illness out to be this big, scary thing, you are making it more likely that friends and family will ignore any signs of problems in their loved ones out of fear and denial. By simplifying the gun control debate to something like, “Well, mentally ill people just shouldn’t have guns,” you are contributing to the idea that people with mental illnesses are scary, dangerous and cannot be trusted.

And although I don’t feel like it should need to be said, let me reiterate: yes, I want to talk about our mental healthcare system. Yes, I want to talk about mental illness. But I don’t want to talk about it today, not when all anyone can think of are those 20 children whose lives were lost. I don’t want to talk about it when the term “mentally ill” conjures up images of a young man storming into a school, armed to the teeth and ready to open fire on innocent people. Because while there are people whose illnesses cause them to be violent, and those people certainly do need a better healthcare system, the vast, vast majority of people who desperately need to see mental healthcare reform will never harm anyone.

I guess that what I really want to say here is that this hits home for me. I’ve been pretty open on here about living with depression and anxiety; I received my first diagnosis when I was 16, which means that I’ve been grappling with these illnesses for nearly half my life. These disorders are a part of me, and I try hard not to be ashamed of them.

So please keep in mind that when you talk about mental illness, about the tragedies it causes and the lives it takes, you are also talking about me.


13 Responses to “Violent Crimes and Mental Illness”

  1. philosophermouseofthehedge December 16, 2012 at 10:20 pm #

    Well said.

  2. Sarah D. December 16, 2012 at 10:46 pm #

    Hmm … excellent piece Belle. 🙂 I’m sort of torn – which means I think I’m likely to leave the judgement on this one to my friends suffering from mental illness, most of whom agree with your take that this is not the time to conflate big scary things like mass murder with mental illness. I find myself wondering, however – since the truth is the perpetrator probably IS mentally ill (admittedly taking a guess, but in all likelihood), is there any way to have this discussion responsibly? To address the things you bring up – that there are varying types and severities of mental illness, that whether crime victim or perpetrator they need treatment and compassion, the importance of treating and managing mental illness etc. – while making clear that the vast majority of those who have suffered/are suffering/will suffer from mental illness ARE NOT THIS MONSTER? I mean, if this crime, as many seem to perceive it, is a conflation of (potential) mental illness meets (actual) gun control issues, and we all certainly think it’s (well past) time to discuss the latter, if it is proven the shooter DOES have a severe psychiatric illness, does a fair, even-handed, non-stigmatizing discussion of those issues have a place as well? I don’t know, the answer to that question could well be ‘no’ – but I don’t think brushing that aspect under the rug is much help to toward destigmatizing mental illness either? As I said … I tend, honestly, to defer to those with experience in this area which seems overwhelmingly to match yours … it just feels like there are lots of components of this issue to talk about, this is one of them, and if there was any responsible and compassionate way to do so, I think we could all benefit – particularly those who could honestly benefit from compassionate and accessible treatment for mental health issues.

    • nyingjegarma December 17, 2012 at 5:24 pm #

      Some great points. The problem is, when we do create the associations between violence and mental illness, we end up reducing the compassion toward this group. And no category of mental illness is equated with violence propensities. The main reason for the needs of the public to conflate violence and mental illness is because society is then off the hook for taking care of these individuals who are struggling when they are given labels. Once placed in the category of “other,” these poor children and their families become “abnormal,” as opposed to an understandable outcome of a society that has moved away from supporting each other. I totally agree that we do need so much more of an investment in reducing the amount of guns and increasing mental health services. We also need a cultural shift toward taking care of one another before children and their families end up in trouble. And until we experience a cultural shift away from fear-mongering and “othering” and realize that any of us could be responsible for just about anything, given the same life experiences, we will continue to try to scapegoat the mentally ill, and other groups who we refuse to identify with. You’re right on with the compassion piece – that is indeed the only thing that can heal a fractured society. But many of us are too accustomed to placing each other in categories to really lead us to reach out to people we don’t understand. We need compassionate treatments, and wide spread, thoughtful education initiatives that help us to identify with people who suffer greatly, not to treat them because we are afraid of them.

    • Eugene Bell June 10, 2014 at 8:47 pm #

      This guy could have opted to keep using a knife. After all, he killed a few with an edged weapon before he went on the shooting spree. He could have gotten away with it for years like Ted Bundy. If people with mental illness, people that have never done anything violent and never will, lose their 2nd amendment rights, the next step is the government will make a law that everyone that buys a gun will have to see a psychiatrist to see if they are sane. After all, there are millions of people that have never been treated, and there will be millions that will not go for treatment because they don’t want to lose their civil rights. I don’t think that punk kid was mentally ill, he was just spoiled. He was mad because he couldn’t get laid, a decent looking kid in a BMW in a college town, and he couldn’t get laid because he was a whiner and a wiener and the girls didn’t like him because of that.

  3. Kate McGinnis December 16, 2012 at 11:32 pm #

    I hope to someday see a world where we don’t have to fight shame.

  4. Christa December 17, 2012 at 7:14 am #

    I wish there was a better phrase than “mentally ill” not all mentally ill people will comit violent acts and not all violent people are mentally ill.
    Also ( and I think this might come out all wrong, so fogive me if it sounds judgemental, it’s not ment to be), I think what you said about making mental illness a scapegoat if right on, mental illness does not excuse a mass murdering, and I think that sometimes that term is used in that way, to excuse a terrible wrong doing…which in turn makes menal illness way more scarier than it should be. And that’s why people don’t talk about it. And the fact of the stigma that a person must be weak to have a mental illness.

    • fallensanity June 24, 2014 at 10:07 pm #

      How about just murderer. That seems the BEST term for those who kill people. Not all murderers are mentally ill. I’ve tried to explain this time and time again, and I constantly get back well you’d have to be mentally ill to kill random people in large amounts. No you don’t you are just a violent murderer. Period. Sure some cases the person might have a mental illness that triggered it but not all cases this is the case.

      I know I”m six months behind on this topic, but this is something that I try to explain over and over again as each mass killing happens.

  5. birdiebent December 17, 2012 at 7:45 pm #

    Reblogged this on sunny side-up.

  6. theyellowblanket December 18, 2012 at 12:56 am #

    Someone in my facebook feed *actually* posted the following: “We need to be better at recognizing the signs of mental illness.” It was a total facepalm moment for me. I wanted to reply “Why, so we can treat everyone with symptoms of a mental illness like they’re about to murder someone?” What I DO think we need to do is to make a Mental Health First Aid course mandatory for everyone. I think we all need to recognize the signs of homicidal or suicidal behavior, and we need to know how to respond appropriately. (AND, btw, I soooo want to add you to my blog, but your email address is nowhere to be found here. Can you email me at

  7. Amanda December 20, 2012 at 4:16 am #

    This is so good.

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