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.