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Blaming the Mentally Ill

There have been many, many blog articles written about the shootings in Connecticut, addressing all sorts of questions. However I’ve been deeply upset by a number of the ideas and thoughts expressed in my facebook feed and to my face about what this tragedy should teach us.
“We need to deal with the problem of mental illness in this country”
“He must have been crazy”
“He definitely was mentally ill”
These comments are completely out of line in this context.

I know, we need to have a discussion about mental healthcare in this country. It is sorely lacking, doesn’t get enough attention, and mental illness is rarely respected as a legitimate form of illness. But this is NOT the way to go about it.

First and foremost in my mind is the idea that Adam Lanza should be the face of mental illness for our country. It is ONLY in minority demographics where the actions of the individual are taken as evidence of the behaviors and attitudes of the larger population. As a clear example, almost every shooter in a domestic terrorism attack in recent history has been white and male. However we don’t see people responding by saying “we need to deal with our white male problem”. It is not assumed that all white males are dangerous like this one, because white males are allowed to be individuals. Mentally ill folks, on the other hand, are lumped into a single category with the same actions and thoughts through all of them.

Nevermind that the vast majority of mentally ill individuals never commit crimes. Nevermind that mentally ill individuals are far more likely to be victims of violent crime than perpetrators. Nevermind that there is a whole spectrum of diseases that constitute mental illness, and that lumping all of those people into one single category erases every kind of difference between them. It would be completely ridiculous to do the same thing with physical illness. “Physically ill people are depressed”. “Physically ill people are unstable”. Could you ever imagine us making statements like that? Mental illness has just as much variation in type and severity as physical illness, but we make blanket statements about mental illness all the time. This is not only unhelpful, it’s dangerous because it creates stigmas, it ignores the needs of all the individuals involved, and it pushes all mentally ill people into the label of “other”.

It is dehumanizing to me when people use the actions of someone who is violent and clearly immoral as a reason to address mental illness. It makes me feel like a problem to be solved, when the real problem is that my needs are not getting met and this country is failing me. It is dehumanizing to me when people equate mentally ill with immoral, unstable, violent, or dangerous. It is dehumanizing to me when a category that I fit into is viewed as a wrong that needs to be righted, as the place where ‘crazy people’ are, as people who need to be hospitalized or jailed. It is dehumanizing to me when the rest of the world gets to point their finger at my diagnoses and say “that’s the reason 28 people are dead”. We have NO evidence that Lanza’s mental illness (if he even had one, we have no concrete evidence of a diagnosis) was the reason he committed this crime. We have NO evidence that mental illness leads to violence. Correlation does not equal causation, this is extremely basic.

More than anything though, it’s dehumanizing to me that if someone were to see me as a statistic: EDNOS, depression, anxiety, self-harm, they would assume that I have the potential to be a criminal and a drain on society because of those things. My depression is not a problem to be solved, and neither is my anxiety. Neither one of them should peg me as a criminal in the minds of others. They are facets of my personality that are difficult for me at times, but which I know how to live with. Just like some people have difficulties with their anger, or some people have difficulties with a bad back, or some people have difficulties holding a job. My mental illness is not a motive for a crime, and it’s no reason to view me as a bad, immoral person.

It’s also not the reason this shooter did what he did. There were probably many reasons he did what he did, but we can never know what his mental state was. Saying that it was the reason makes it easy for people to paint every person with mental illness with the same brush: unstable, potentially criminal, dangerous, and for people to make the argument that we deserve to lose our freedoms and rights because we are inherently dangerous, or inherently incapable of functioning without oversight.

I am not a child. I am not immoral. I am not unstable. I just have some things that make my life more difficult in certain ways. But that doesn’t make me a potential killer, and the idea that mental illness is something which creates criminals is offensive, dehumanizing and dangerous. Now is NOT the time to talk about mental illness, because mental illness is only peripherally related to this shooting at best.


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Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at

1 Comment

  1. December 29, 2012 at 11:47 am —

    It’s interesting that society seems determined to class mentally ill people as a minority, to be quietly put to one side and ignored. We are not a minority. One in three people will have will have a mental illness in their lifetime. That’s more than people with heart problems isn’t it? But heart disease isn’t treated in the same way.

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