Mental Illness, Violence, and the Church

When gunman James Holmes opened fire in an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater during a midnight showing of a Batman movie last July, my stepsisters were sitting in the theater next door. Bullets came through the wall into their theater, where at least one person was killed and others were wounded. They escaped unharmed but badly shaken.

Then, a few days after a Labor Day weekend visit to my aunt and uncle in Louisville–including a Sunday worship service at their church–a man allegedly shot and killed two people at a homeowners association meeting in the church. My cousin was sitting in the same large room, on the other side of a partition, participating in a women’s Bible study. She and the rest of her group escaped the room safely–again, shaken but unharmed.

Obviously, such shootings hit close to home when family members are in danger.

But for me, they hit close to home for another reason too. In both cases–as it usually does–the media quickly emphasized the “mental health treatment history” of the alleged shooter. And because my mother has schizophrenia, I’m sensitive to the way such portrayals reinforce fear of people with mental illness.

Obviously, anyone who is considering or planning to commit mass murder is disturbed in some way–something has been seriously disrupted in that person. But that doesn’t mean the person is mentally ill–as the case of Anders Breivik illustrates. And it doesn’t mean people with mental illness, or a history of treatment for mental health, are violent.

Did you know that people with mental illness are generally no more violent than the general population? Statistically, it’s true. As with the general population, substance abuse does increase tendencies toward violence, but mental illness itself does not make people significantly more prone to violence than the rest of the population. In fact, according to the U. S. Surgeon General’s office, “there is very little risk of violence or harm to a stranger from casual contact with an individual who has a mental disorder–the overall contribution of mental disorders to the total level of violence in society is exceptionally small.”

Yet with our sensational media coverage and quick stereotypes, people tend to believe that their neighbors with mental illness are ticking time bombs, violent criminals just waiting for the right time to attack.

The media’s emphasis on people’s history of mental illness is meaningless. A full 25 percent-plus of the U. S. adult population has a history of diagnosable mental illness. And many more of us have a history of treatment for mental health–considering all our visits to counselors. It’s not unusual in any way to have a history of treatment for mental health, yet its emphasis reinforces fear of mental illness in society and in the church itself.

Such an ungenerous view of people is unbecoming for followers of Christ. The church can push for change by changing our own view of people with mental illness, seeing them as individuals rather than as a category of people who are easy to dismiss. We must become more educated about mental illness and extend God’s grace rather than assume the worst about suffering people.

In Jesus’ day, among the stigmatized and marginalized were lepers, tax collectors, prostitutes, people who were demon-possessed, and people who were disabled. They were systemically dismissed and even blamed for their conditions. Jesus saw them as people and reached out to them and met their needs. The church should do the same with our own marginalized and suffering people.

This article first appeared on ThinkChristian.

  1. Ray says:

    Amy this is yet another, well-written, pointed article. Thank you for bringing these issue to attention of the general population. As I am in the throes of getting my head around the subject of depression and learning as much as I can about it for myself and others who may suffer from it, articles such as yours are a nectar to the soul.

    It is true there is so much ignorance around depression and if one uses the word mental illness, even within the church, its interesting to see some responses. and “looks” that follow.

    Just this Sunday I listened to a doctor speak about the struggles of depression sufferers and how lonely many feel on the journey. Its also revealing to hear of how many high profile people have struggled with it in the past and today. Im writing about the subject in your blog and thank you for a quote of yours I “borrowed” in a recent blog.

    God bless you Amy.

  2. Krysti says:

    And yet, mental illness is a contributing factor in many or most of these cases where gunmen go on shooting sprees. These attacks are a serious indicator that we as a society are not caring properly for our mentally ill or getting them the kind of help that they need!

    Marriages are destroyed by mental illness, particularly mental illness that goes untreated because of the fear of one or both partners in the marriage that the stigma of mental illness will create a disaster for the family finances if the mentally ill member seeks treatment, especially if they need to be hospitalized. Abuse and neglect go unreported and untreated for the same reason: that when the mentally ill person is the breadwinner, letting anyone know creates a situation that adds to the abuse and neglect–and the desperation, instead of resolving it.

    As someone who has dealt with this dilemma with persons close to me, I have witnessed how mental illness which is poorly treated and inadequately monitored leads to situations where the mentally ill person loses control, wreaking havoc on schedules and discipline–not just their own, but also for everyone around them. Caring for them and trying to restore some semblance of order in their wake becomes a full-time job for their spouse or care-giver, leading to burn-out, poor physical health, and other stress-related issues. This is the often unvoiced toll of mental illness, and may be the greater danger.

    Our society needs to recognize that:
    1) the drugs currently in use are a treatment, not a cure for mental illness;
    2) as a treatment these drugs are many times ineffective or detrimental to the mental state of the person who receives them, even when it’s clear to everyone around them that they need treatment.
    It can take a number of tries to find the correct drugs and dosages.
    3) these drugs should only be administered under the direct supervision of a doctor in a medical setting until the patient has stabilized, because, especially in men, a bad reaction can have such devastating consequences.
    4) family or friends, someone close to the patient who sees and interacts with them daily needs to be available and consulted for feedback regarding the efficacy of treatment, so that when a reaction occurs, the doctor will know to remove the patient from the drug instead of prolonging their misery, and the concern of everyone around them.

  3. Tony Roberts says:

    Very well said.

    “The media?s emphasis on people?s history of mental illness is meaningless.” Amen!

    When NBC anchor Bryan Williams referred to Ariel Castro as “The face of mental illness,” he might just as well have said, “The face of obesity,” or “The face of mankind.” Sheer propaganda.

  4. Trudi Crookshanks says:

    Great article! My husband and daughter both deal with Asperger Syndrome. My husband also deals with OCD and narcissism from lack of self-esteem. His dad also had Asperger Syndrome and he was very dictatorial. My daughter deals with major anxiety. She is on medication and it helps some. My husband is on no medications as he does not accept what he has. I go to Saddleback Church in So. CA and recently the son of our pastor, committed suicide, because he could not longer deal with the mental illness he had. Pastor Rick Warren has, in the past gotten involved in causes and I am hoping they will bring mental illness to the forefront in the Christian world. I have been in small groups before, with people who do not understand what I deal with at home and I was told to just “love” him more. Dealing with this is exhausting for me and I do deal with emotional burnout. The friends I make have to understand what I deal with or I do not want them as friends.

    • Candid and apt comments Trudi. You certainly have a load on your plate and it’s not made easier when people don’t understand, especially fellow believers. I live in South Africa but have followed Rick warren’s teaching for some years. I’m sure the loss of their son must have brought mental illness and it’s devastation close to home and will bring more awareness and understanding from those who may have ‘judged’ or lacked compassion for sufferers.

      I pray for strength and grace for you but also that your husband would acknowledge he has an illness and will take the first (but biggest hurdle) of seeking help to get on the road to recovery.
      God bless you.

© 2013 Amy Simpson.