Monday, November 28, 2011

He's nuts!: Society's Link Between Mental Illness and Violence

My dear friend JT Eberhard has unleashed a call to the secular bloggosphere: blog about mental illness. If you have one (or several), write about your experiences. If you don't, write about loved ones that do. Dispel myths about mental illness. Far too many go without the help they need because of society's stigmas against mental illness.

JT makes several very important points in his talk; ignorance of mental disorders breeds fear, there is an arbitrary distinction between physical ailments and mental ones, and a combination of these two overarching issues causes people with mental illnesses to be averse to treatment and the possibility of leading a close-to-normal life.

First, a little about myself. At 10, I was diagnosed with clinical depression. I had been showing symptoms as early as 7. At 14, I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder (again, showed symptoms as young as 7 years old). At 17, post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of abuse received in my early teens. I have been in and out of therapy since my initial diagnosis. For years I chose to go without medication for my illnesses. The reasoning was at the time, there were not very many (read: none) medications available for young teens that did not come with heavy suicide risk. However, with the diagnosis of my fibromyalgia lead to my being treated with SNRIs, also a treatment for my myriad of mental illnesses. Now I am in the process of managing my illnesses with medication and habitual management.

Being the bearer of several mental disorders has made me an adamant supporter of mental health. I passionately advocate for people to get the treatment they need. It also means I fight to dispel myths about such disorders as often as possible.

Recently, I fell into an argument with one of my professors concerning violence and mental illness. He staunchly supported preventing people with a history of mental illness from owning any kind of weapon (namely firearms). His reasoning being that anyone who cannot accurately perceive reality should not be allowed to be armed.

His position is not an uncommon one. We see it all the time; we hear it in the vernacular. "That terrorist was crazy!" is not an uncommon phrase. When reporting violent crimes (especially high-profile ones), the news media often first looks for a history of mental illness to explain away an individual's (or group's) actions. They grasp at anything they can; depression, anxiety, autism, PTSD, schizophrenia, and so on. (See how my three disorders are on that list?)

At first glance, this is not an unreasonable conclusion for society to reach. After all, how could a normal person do something so heinous? That person simply must be crazy. It's an easy conclusion to come to. And it is very much wrong. Study after study shows that even severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia do not increase a person's propensity for violence toward others. The main predictors of violent behavior are a history of violence and drug/alcohol use. Those predictors remain true whether the individual is neurotypical or not.

There seems to be this idea that these violent people must somehow not understand the consequences of their actions; that if they truly understood that they were killing innocent people, they wouldn't do these awful things. Except they do. They know full-well the consequences of their actions. Seung Hui Cho (the Virginia Tech shooter) had practiced shooting his victims in a lockdown situation. He knew the school would go into lockdown. He knew where the students would be, and what their physical positions would be. He planned accordingly. His history of selective muteness had absolutely nothing to do with very calculated attack on the school. Anyone who says that anxiety over speaking around others leads to shooting sprees needs to seriously reexamine their critical thinking skills.

People with mental illness are much more prone to violence toward themselves, not others. Self-harm, mutilation, and suicide are the most common forms. For 6 years I mutilated my legs, stomach and arms as a way of trying to (unsuccessfully) deal with my mental anguish. But the fights I got into at school were ones where the other person struck first. I just happened to be fairly big and strong for my age ;). But in all seriousness, a person's ability to harm themselves does not translate to an ability to harm others.

But negativity to those with mental illness pervades our culture. We freely use "crazy," "nuts," "psycho" and other slang for the mentally ill to refer to violent individuals. They are inherently negative terms. JT and others are trying to reclaim them, using them as terms of endearment. I too am trying to lighten (and enlighten) the attitudes around such terms. I lovingly refer to when I take small pile of pills in the morning as "happy pill time" or "old people pill time." By normalizing mental illness, by dispelling the dangerous myths around it, we can give those suffering from them the opportunity to openly seek treatment before it's too late.


  1. As someone who suffers from chronic anxiety and depression, I really appreciate this post. It can be really hard for people who suffer from mental illness. I know often, I find myself wanting to express the troubles I face to others, just to share what I go through to someone, but feel I have to keep it to myself or else they will think I'm "crazy". It creates a feeling of extreme isolation, and feeling like I have to live in secret or else it will change how others see me.
    Another big problem I feel we face is the issue of people not understanding that "all in your head" does NOT mean it's not real. I cannot tell you how much I hate that phrase. For years I was told, "oh, it's all in your head, get over it." Yes. It IS all in my head. It is a neurological illness. It's in my brain, not my body, but that doesn't mean I can simply wake up one morning and say to myself "You know what, I've had enough being sad. Today I'm going to be happy and forget my depression!" It's almost unreal to me how much misinformation and lack of understanding there is around mental illness. We're no longer living in the dark ages, you would think there would be more widespread understanding of these illnesses that so many people suffer with.

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