Musings of a Marfan Mom

What We Don’t Talk About


I think many people, if not most, would agree that Saturday’s horrific events call for some serious discussion about political rhetoric in this country. I’d like to bring up another point of conversation that I think is long overdue and particularly struck me yesterday: how we consider those in our country who have mental illness.

When tragedies happen, we naturally search for some way to make sense of them. Almost immediately after the news of the attack on Congresswoman Giffords, I saw people online begin to insist that the mass murder must be the work of “a crazy person,” seemingly in response to the suggestions that inflammatory speech from the political right had something to do with egging the (at the time unknown) shooter on. Later on, after the media released some YouTube videos by the shooter (Jared Loughner), many people began to armchair diagnose Loughner as being schizophrenic.

There are a few things about this that rankle me:
1) “Crazy” is not an innocuous word. It is often thrown about carelessly, but its roots are in mental illness and it can be quite a hurtful term. If you are using it to describe a person with a mental illness, it’s better to just say “a person with a mental illness.”

2) It’s dangerous to just assume a diagnosis for someone. For instance, we’re only seeing what the media is publishing at this point in time. I haven’t watched the videos, though I understand they’re radical. Still, naturally the media is going to put forth the most inflammatory things they can find on a suspect. Sometimes those who commit crimes are radical, and sometimes they’re not, but the media is going to want to paint them as far from mainstream as possible. Why? We don’t want to think that people who commit crimes, especially heinous ones, are like us in any way.

3) Also, when we throw out a diagnosis, we’re also subtly saying something about others with that same illness. As a society we oftentimes connect violence with schizophrenia, but that’s not a fair connection to make. Not only is it unfair, but it ostracizes those who have that illness…it creates fear of them, which marginalizes them further. I was frustrated to see the Today Show feeding into this this morning, having Dr. Gail Saltz on to speculate that Loughner had schizophrenia and to say that people with that diagnosis can be violent and aggressive. Sure, she gave a disclaimer that a “thorough evaluation” is necessary to make a diagnosis and that many people with schizophrenia will never be violent, but she had already done the harm. You might be surprised, but having a diagnosis of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder does not greatly increase a person’s risk of being violent: it’s actually whether a person abuses drugs or alcohol that is the better indicator. (Check out this Slate article for more.)

4) Jumping to the conclusion that Loughner, or anyone who commits a violent crime, has a mental illness becomes an excuse to avoid having to ask yourself the hard questions, like whether the way you talk contributes to a climate of tension and provides fodder for aggression, or how our healthcare system has left too many people with mental illness to fend for themselves. It creates the idea that only people with mental illness are “bad.” (And it’s not just about Loughner…Prudie of Dear Prudence just suggested a one-time sex offender might be a sociopath because he told a lie, as if there aren’t many other motives to lie that aren’t fueled by pathology.) Truth is, we know for a fact that people with mental illness are not the only ones who are committing crimes, including heinous ones. People assassinate or murder for a variety of motivations: money, politics, passion, etc.

We need to stop dismissing people with mental illness as “Others.” When we do so, we’re only serving to further marginalize them from society. While an individual is responsible for his/her actions, as a society we have to assume some culpability for creating a culture that pushes those with illness to the borders of our communities.

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  1. Very well written post. I could not agree more.


  2. Well written and extremely well stated; I was travelling all weekend and have completely missed the majority of what happened, and I know even less about mental illness, but I know that it rings true: it is an automatic impulse to say that the person in question must be somehow mentally “broken” — and there are so many things wrong with that, that I wouldn’t know where to begin.

    Thankfully, you did.


  3. I was just talking about this w/ someone when they brought up the youtube videos yesterday!!-i was getting frustrated with how people were coming to the conclusion of his insanity and removing guilt from the guilty in the situation


  4. Thank you. This message needs to be spread and repeated. Marginalizing the mentally ill in this way does nothing to help anyone- not the population at large or the mentally ill, nor does it help prevent future crimes and acts of violence. Like airport security, it makes the masses feel more at ease without actually m
    any progress toward real change. Proper mental
    health (as well as substance abuse) programs will not only save taxpayer dollars, but get friends and family the help they need to be an involved, valued part of our society.


    marfmom Reply:

    That’s a good comparison to airport security. And yes, people need to understand that a prevention system of healthcare is healthier and more cost effective than a cure system.


  5. Great post. This is a powerful example of what happens when we stigmatize and ignore mental illness. Too much of the national discussion we’re having now misses, perhaps intentionally, the core issue: a young man who was clearly suffering under severe illness was ignored by many people and institutions until he finally fell apart and committed a tragedy. As much as I sympathize with the perspective of those who want to limit access to firearms, and as much I oppose the violent rhetoric that our politicians so recklessly circulate, what we need more than anything is to strengthen the quality and accessibility of our mental health system. To do that, we as a society need to move past the superficial stereotypes that we use to help us ignore people like Jared Loughner.


  6. And from a mothering perspective, when our society has so marginalized mental illness in all its form, we do an incredible disservice to moms who are struggling with post-partum depression. When they are convinced that, to seek help is to admit defeat, we have failed them.


  7. Wow. Brilliant article (way better than a post)! I really found that 4 resonated with me.

    Thank you

    Followed you from SITS!


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