Hey, so like. You know that thing where someone does something disturbing or dangerous or violent or whatever and everyone whips out language like “crazy”, “deranged”, “insane” and so on to describe it?
Don’t do that, hey.
Mental illness is very rarely, in itself, a trigger for violence. And, moreover, I think one of the big reasons people (neurotypical and neurodiverse alike) like to scapegoat it is to try and convince ourselves we couldn’t possibly ever do [insert violent thing here]. It’s an excuse for us not to look closely at the real causes of violence in our societies, or to recognise tendencies to violence in ourselves and our loved ones. Violence is always something done by the Other, by people who are Different in some way. Who are Not Right or Born Wrong. It’s never an explicable by-product of toxic culture. Oh no. Let’s blame “insanity” for it instead. Sure. Whatever.
Except… no. Let’s not.
Exact numbers vary from place to place, but in Australia, something like one in five people will experience mental illness in a year (rates for countries like the US and UK are similar). Or, to put it another way, if you know a least five people, then it is statistically likely you know someone with a mental illness. In fact, I’m betting most of you are imagining that person right now, as you’re reading this.1
What I want you to remember, is that every time you–and me, I’m not perfect at this either–use words like “crazy” and “mad” to describe violent acts, you’re contributing to a culture that makes everyday life noticeably worse for that person. And for a whole bunch of other people you don’t know. You’re making it more likely that they will be marginalised, denied work and other opportunities. More likely that they will be socially isolated by both friends and family. And more likely to, themselves, be victims of violence.
The reality is that the link between mental illness and violence is very small; that is, most people with mental illness aren’t violent and most violent people don’t have mental illness. The only reason we conflate the two is sensationalist media, coupled with lazy linguistic shorthands. This is also a trend that increased notably during the second half of the twentieth century:
A longitudinal study of American’s attitudes on mental health between 1950 and 1996 found, “the proportion of Americans who describe mental illness in terms consistent with violent or dangerous behavior nearly doubled.”
In other words, the link in peoples’ minds between violence and mental illness was culturally constructed.
That means we can deconstruct it, too.
So let’s begin.
- Diagnosed and disclosed imaginings only, please. Don’t self-diagnose other people. It’s a jerkass thing to do. [↩]