Ever since the Sandy Hook shooting in December, I’ve been wanting to write an article about mental illness but haven’t found the right words. As evident from the post I wrote that day, I was extremely upset about the tragedy and the message it was sending to society.
But as time rolled on, there was something that was upsetting me just as much: both the news stories and people I talked to would focus on the fact that the shooter was autistic and a “weird kid” at school, and would act as if being autistic was an explanation for committing mass murder.
I’ve seen this type of news story unfold so many times: after a tragedy, people (understandably) search for an explanation, and they often come to the conclusion that it was schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, psychopathy, or now autism that caused the person to commit a horrible crime against innocent people. While it takes some sort of mental instability to commit an extremely violent crime, the public often generalizes this violent association with all people with the same disorder.
This kind of mindset completely misrepresents people suffering from various mental illnesses and stigmatizes mental disorders, which often leads to very serious consequences. If there’s one thing I learned from my brief year as a psychology major, it’s that stigmas against mental illness often cause people to avoid seeking treatment in fear of being ostracized by society. That fear is definitely rooted in reality: throughout my life I have both made and heard comments from “that person is literally insane” (usually preceding a story of something bad they did) to “stop being so bipolar”. These kinds of phrases associate mental illnesses with people who are unruly, overly emotional, and potentially dangerous. This kind of association combined with the media’s focused report on mental illness in violent crimes leads to the impression that people with mental illness are to be avoided or feared.
While violent acts have been committed by individuals with various mental illnesses, the New York Times noted in a study that “only about 4% of the violence in the United States can be attributed to people with mental illness”, while the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) points out that “an estimated 26.2 percent of Americans ages 18 and older – about one in four adults – suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year”. In fact, the NIMH goes further in another study, stating that people with severe mental illnesses are “11 times more likely to be victims of violent crime than the general population” and that the majority of violence committed by them is against themselves, not towards others.
As a society, we should begin encouraging treatment for mental disorders, which starts with de-stigmatizing people struggling with one. Once I started learning about various mental illnesses and their causes, I realized that both biology and environment play significant roles in the frequency of disorders – similar to any other illness, from diabetes to migraines. I know it will take a very long time before schizophrenia can be talked about as openly as diabetes, but the United States already come such a long way in the treatment of psychology patients, and I know we can push ourselves even further.
To begin, below are both the sources I used in this article and general information about various mental disorders. It all begins with educating ourselves!
The New York Times:
The National Institute for Mental Health:
The Star Tribune: