A Quandary: Mental Illness, Public Safety

Due to quite a few recent tragedies, debates about mental illness have been prominent in the public eye. Perhaps they aren’t as visible as, say, gun control laws or Lance Armstrong’s shadiness, but they have quite a presence.

The debate is couched in terms that express “concern” for people who are mentally ill, and no doubt many commentators do feel concerned about people with mental illness. But there are implicitly darker tones, and these tones worry me.

They worry me because they have the potential to increase the stigma against mental illness in the name of helping those with a mental illness.

As far as I understand it, the argument is that we should help those with a mental illness before it becomes severe enough to make them act violently.

That is a noble idea. People should get the help they need. Maybe people’s lives can be saved by pursuing this policy.

But what about those of us who struggle with a mental illness yet do not have violent tendencies? Or those of us who do have violent tendencies yet can refrain from acting upon them?

There’s an excellent recent article in The New York Times that explores problems with the recent mental health debate, but I’m going to discuss other ideas. I’m going to take a more personal tack, speaking as someone who is diagnosed with a mental illness. I’m going to talk about why I feel as if some of the debates will increase the stigma, a stigma that already makes me feel as if I have to hide my mental health issues.

There’s already a misconception that most people with a mental illness are violent. This comes out in a lot of crime dramas. The most concrete example I can think of is an episode of Criminal Minds I once watched. At the end of the episode, it was revealed that the murderer had committed their crimes because they had borderline personality disorder. At the time, I’d suspected I could have borderline personality disorder. I can safely assure you that I’d never do something similarly violent. While these days it seems I might not have borderline personality disorder, nevertheless I know people with that diagnosis, and I’m sure they wouldn’t commit those types of crimes, either. This is one reason why a person may not want to disclose a diagnosis of mental illness–they’re afraid that people will automatically dismiss them as violent because of what they see on TV shows.

If society adopts a heavily mainstream attitude that mental illness automatically equates to violence, how many people are going to want to seek a diagnosis? How many people would feel that they can freely admit to the diagnosis? I’d wager very few.

If people are reluctant to see a professional because of the connotations of violence, how is that going to help people who do endure a mental illness? For that matter, how is that going to curtail acts committed by those who are violent and mentally ill?

I fear that the focus on violence and mental illness could return us to the dark ages of mental health treatment. Of locking away anyone who exhibits any sign of mental illness in order to protect society from “those people.” Of course, this wouldn’t be the sort of language used. The justification would be that the arrangement gives those with a mental illness the help they really need. This wouldn’t happen right away; it would be so gradual that the choice would seem natural to the general public. But, to me, that seems to be the path indicated by the association between violence and mental illness.

But the fact of the matter remains that most people with a mental illness aren’t violent. Just as most people in the general public aren’t violent. There are people out there who are both violent and mentally ill, and there are people out there who are both violent and not mentally ill.

Most people with a mental illness can and do function in society. They contribute to society, too. Yes, perhaps they need some accommodations, but so do many other people as well. Only by lessening the stigma (I’m not optimistic enough to believe that removal is likely) will people be willing to seek out the help they need and deserve.

Then again, I understand that there are a few individuals whose mental illness may goad them into violence. These people do need help to deal with those impulses. That help could prevent disasters, perhaps.

But how are we to tell who those people are? There’s no surefire way.

Therefore, I feel that targeting mental health is the wrong way to tackle the issue. I suspect a bigger culprit may be our society’s promotion of fame at any cost.

I don’t have any answers, and I don’t believe the potential answers are easy to come by. All I have are thoughts I hope will showcase the complexity of the issue and serve as a warning against absolutism.

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35 thoughts on “A Quandary: Mental Illness, Public Safety

  1. My younger sister’s sister-in-law’s husband was murdered and the defense tried to use a psych eval saying he had BPD, and killed the guy to please his then girlfriend who was going to have wages garnished for child support. Apparently it was all her idea and he didn’t want her TO LEAVE HIM, so he killed her ex-husband. Yeah well it backfired and they said even though he had BPD they could not say he wouldn’t do it again, if put in a similar situation.

    • Oh, wow. I’m sorry to hear about that. I’m really not sure where mental illness would cause someone to do someone to do what they wouldn’t otherwise. I know it happens, but I’m not sure where that line would be. Like I said, though, I don’t think there’s any mental illness where one could be sure that the person with it is violent.

      • There are no mental illnesses where all the people with it are violent. However, some mental illnesses (because of their nature) have a higher probability of making a person with it violent. Any mental illness that causes psychosis can potentially make a person violent and in many cases it does.

        My father shoot my mother in the head (and therefore killing her) because of mental illness. He had a mental illness. And my mother’s death could have been prevented, had my father had proper treatment

        • Oh, wow. 😦

          I think you’ve stated the issue well.–I know there are many mental illnesses that do predispose people to violence. I’m just not sure where you’d draw the line at the appropriate time to intervene if the person isn’t getting the help they need. Maybe a mental health screening should be de rigueur? A regular check-up, like when people periodically get physicals, see the optometrist, etc.? If it was just another routine visit, maybe it wouldn’t be as stigmatizing. This would probably have to be something that’s implemented gradually, though.

  2. I wouldn’t want to accept help from people who assume I’m violent. That’s not actually helping ME. Also, if the help isn’t accepted we run the risk of increased involuntary treatment.

    In 2008 my friend was murdered by an idiot boy who was told to do so by an idiot girl. This girl’s lawyer tried to tell the court the she had BPD. As someone who has BPD/traits I was furious! I would NEVER kill someone but now this idiot girl is the face of the disorder. The case is actually mentioned on pg 180 of Simon Baron-Cohen’s book The Science of Evil: On Empathy of the Origins of Cruelty (it’s a whole book that looks at how certain brain disorders create evil people)! It all makes me sick….

    • That’s true that they’re not helping you in that case.
      One of the proposals mentioned in the article I linked to includes making it easier to involuntary commit people. So, there are people that support that . . .

      Yeah, I think there’s a tendency these days to blame certain acts of violence on mental illness. If it’s not something the motive doesn’t seem understandable, it’s thrown under the heading of “mental illness.”

      • I think it’s all linked to our belief that people are good. If someone commits a violent crime it MUST be because they are not good, there is something wrong with them. I believe it’s how we try and make sense of things that are morally wrong but it’s hurting others in the process.

        • So I guess this would go back to how one views people. I think people are good, but I also think people are bad. We’ve got both in all of us. There are people who are bad and do bad things; that doesn’t mean they don’t have some good in them somewhere. There are people who are good and do good things; that doesn’t mean they don’t have bad in them somewhere. But this would be more the terrain of philosophy, lol. Some people try to find a biological explanation for things, and the mental illness theory is where many end up. Then people tend to view the world by categorizing people in groups and generalizing about what *everyone* in that group is like, when such generalizations aren’t true.

      • Not just these days. Blaming mental illness as a reason for commiting a crime is probably one of the oldest tricks in the lawyers’ book. And that’s a huge part of the problem. People who don’t have a mental illness, claiming to have one in order to avoid legal charges or prison. That only creates more fog around the real issue.

        • Yeah, it does. Then we have the media oftentimes portraying the insanity defense as the go-to one for criminals. It gives people the impression that “by reason of insanity” is a crutch, something not real that people can take advantage of to get away with things. Then when that might be a legitimate reason, there’s that societal bias against it.

  3. Great post. I’m BP and have been told I would have been put away back when they used to do that. But, I hold a steady job and am a contributing member of society. I don’t need more stigma.

    • Thanks, tyroper. I probably would’ve been put away, too. Well, maybe not, because my social anxiety makes me standoffish . . . I might be seen like some eccentric woman or something. But I like to think I contribute to society, too. Well, I take my job seriously, etc.

  4. Great post, Angel. I, too, am concerned that there seems to be a funnel developing around this series of mass killings, a funnel leading right down the drain and into the nut-hatch (sorry, DeeDee). For crying out loud, that last one didn’t even have a DSM diagnosis: just a lot of conjecture about a “weird kid.” Now they’re going to have to put “weird” into the DSM. just to fit him in. And all “weird” kids will be watched for signs of impending violence. Dart guns filled with Haldol will be trained on them at all times.

    For as long as I have been capable of forming thoughts, I have thought that the aim of society is homogenization. Anyone who sticks out in a crowd is apt to get labeled and hauled off quietly (or not) to the looney bin.

    It’s a good thing Big Brother has been a bit slow on the draw. He’s missed some important threats to society like Einstein, Beethoven, Sylvia Plath, Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf….but on the other hand, if I had to go hang out in the nut house with people of their (and OUR) ilk, it might not be so bad, assuming the food was good.

    • Ugh, I just lost my comment. Thanks, Soul Survivor.

      Anyway, I was saying that people describe perpetrators of violence as “weird,” “quiet,” and “asocial.” Those are all words that could describe me. Some people say that these qualities should be tell-tale signs of a potentially violent outburst, but I wouldn’t act like that. There’s more to it than those qualities, and I don’t think there’d be anyway to discover incontrovertible signs without constant Big-Brother-like surveillance? Would we want to submit to that? There’re many problems with that idea.

      • If reading CNN is any indication, it’s getting worse for us weird people. We’re being spoken of in the same phrase with mass murderers. Shades of “1984”….shudder……

  5. Oh, this is REALLY well said. I’ve had some of the same concerns, along with a few more, and you’ve brought up some I hadn’t given thought to as well. Thank you for the very needed perspective.

    • Thank you! I’m sure there are loads of concerns I haven’t brought up, but these are some of the ones that make me most indignant. I hate the implication that having a mental illness makes someone more violent than the average person. It gives me yet another reason why I feel like I have to be sure they stay hidden.

    • I don’t think it’s absolutist. I do agree that people should get help and do what they need for their mental health. What I don’t like is the idea that having a mental illness (perhaps a physiological problem of the brain) makes one have more violent impulses and more inclined to act violently. I don’t think the majority of people with mental illness have a problem with their brain that makes them behave more violently than the average person. I’m sure there are a few that do, but I’m afraid that focusing on those few would lead to the belief that all people with similar problems are probably violent, too.

      • If people could come to the understanding that mental unbalance is chemical unbalance and that that’s all there is to it, maybe more people with these chemical issues wouldn’t feel shame, and consequently come forward to receive medical/medicinal help. I know this is taking a long view on the subject of stigma but change usually happens slowly. I’m just doing my best to try to get it going in a sort of a positive direction.

        • That’s true. At the same time, I think there’s the possibility of classifying people as violent or non-violent based on whether they have said chemical imbalance. Seeing things from a purely biological standpoint could lead to the idea that violent/non-violent natures are due to that biological mental illness, and hence that a violent nature is purely genetic. It’s good to acknowledge the biological component of mental health issues, but I think the violence misconception belongs in a different category. If people are convinced that society will see them as predisposed to violence because of a chemical imbalance, then I still don’t think people will be eager to seek help. So, I guess what I’m trying to say (what with my rambling) is that viewing mental illness as a product of a chemical imbalance won’t help ease the stigma if society continues to associate mental illness with a violent nature.

  6. I too am soooo disturbed by this trend of blaming heinous acts of violence on mental illness then inferring that those with mental illness are all potentially violent. There is a brand new tv show called DO NO HARM based on a fictional surgeon by day and psycho by night character with dissociative identity disorder. As someone diagnosed with DID, I am totally repulsed by the image this portrays to the public about my diagnosis. Thanks for your post and all your hard work to reduce the stigma. Keep on going.

    • Thank you. Yeah, I’m disturbed that most of the media’s representations of mental illness involve people who are violent. Since pop culture is many people’s only frame of reference, they may think the media’s picture is an accurate representation of mental illness. And that, I think, helps uphold the stigma.

    • I thought about writing about this on my personal blog, but it seemed like a more Canvas-like post to me. Besides, I haven’t written anything for Canvas in quite a while, so I wanted to contribute here. To tell you the truth, I was a little frightened to post about this subject.

      Yes, indeed, there aren’t any clear wrong or right answers. But I think people should be aware that much of the mental illness/violence association is simplistic and harmful.

      • Well, I’m glad you did!

        And I agree with you. There’s are a lot of misconceptions, oversimplification and even sensationalism about that.

        We’ve come a long way when it comes to Mental Illness in the public eye but there’s still a lot of room for improvement

  7. This is such a great post. Thanks for sharing these thoughts. You make a really relevant point. For some reason (I am completely bewildered that I didn’t see this), I did not even think that people would automatically assume that having a mental illness would directly affiliate you with violence. Probably because I grew up heavily in a mental illness/violence side of the world, I saw many underlying motives and could see that at heart many people are not truly wanting to be violent but they are just truly hurt and angry by whatever uncontrollable circumstances they had, thus just simply (but severely) needing compassion from someone.

    It is scary to think that people out there are more likely to jump to inaccurate conclusions instead of pausing and stepping back for minute. What I know would work and has worked in the past for some other social movements (cancer, LGBTQ, AIDS/HIV, and other heavily stigmatized areas) is education, promotional projects, and public support. Though there is still stigma around LGBTQ and AIDS/HIV people, those campaigns have way lifted the ban compared to if there was nothing like that.

    One line you mentioned that society’s value in fame is something needed to be talked about and I thoroughly agree; I think the values that are set in this society are completely WRONG and BACKWARDS! and actually, if we worked at examining those, I believe everything else would take care of itself. Though unfortunately, that requires major, huge internal evaluation and I wonder realistically what it could possibly take to get people to do that given the monstrosity of value towards completely superficial things… but in the meantime, individual campaigning for these kinds of things wouldn’t hurt.

    Goodness… I’m still a little shocked at how much my own life has been enveloped in these topics and being so so familiar with it all but at the same time seeing that many many people don’t understand at all! What! This is almost touching my tear ducts ! Thank you so much for writing this post! I think about these issues a lot and write about them in my own blog.

    • Thanks. I’m glad you find my thoughts useful. I agree with what you say about violence, that oftentimes violence indicates a need for compassion, and a deep hurt. Then the anger that the hurt has been inflicted on them in the first place.

      You make many excellent points in your comment! Hopefully mental illness will one day not be seen as a shameful secret to hide. But then there are those people who commit heinous crimes, and they’re always connected to mental illness. I’m not saying they don’t have a mental illness or that the mental illness didn’t contribute to their actions. That’s a fine line, and I’m not sure where it lies, and what in their lives led to their actions. I do think, though, that having these events so prominent in the public eye will lead to a widespread association of mental illness with violence, and this association will make it harder to fight the stigma.

      • I see your concern. The media especially likes to hype things up and unfortunately skews the reality in a situation. We will just have to see, meanwhile I know I will definitely clear up that assumption for those around me, so you have one voice there 🙂

  8. That´s the problem. People believe what they see on TV and hear in the media. Of course it can happen that some people with a mental illness can become violent, as well as it can happen with any other person that is claimed as “healthy” as well. I don´t like the fact either that they all get pushed in the same corner as well as the fact that depressive people are cryying the whole day thinking about suicide. This is just one face of this illness. I´m got diagnosed with depressions some years back as well but never had the intention to kill myself, it showed up in different ways. Instead about just reporting the one side of the medal, there should be more real education, otherwise the good meant idea isn´t helpful at all.

    • Indeed. Depression is much more complicated than the way it’s often depicted. People get a one-dimensional impression of mental illness because the nuances aren’t acknowledged.

  9. Nothing to add that hasn’t already been said. Very enjoyable and important discussion that you generated here with your post Angel. Thank you and well done! 🙂

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