They’ve done it again. Our news media have handed out another fistful of fear, their most valuable currency, in exchange for our attention, at the expense of everyone who seeks–or needs to seek–treatment for mental health.
In their coverage of the shooting at Fort Hood last week, reporters were quick to jump on the Army’s revelation that the alleged shooter, Ivan Lopez, had a “history” of receiving mental health care. Or in the words of USA Today, he had “mental health issues.” They claimed he, like a significant portion of the American population, was being treated for anxiety and depression.
As an NPR story (a bright bulb of responsible journalism) pointed out, this tired angle on another story of violence perpetuates the idea that people with mental illness are more violent that the rest of us. It also perpetuates the sense that mental illness is a good cause for fear and for distancing ourselves from one another.
Why do journalists find such a ready audience for headlines like “Fort Hood Shooter Ivan Lopez Had Mental Problems“?
I believe the reason is twofold: 1) We’re suckers for sensationalism. 2) We demand an explanation.
Our appetite for sensationalism is well-documented and not my focus.
Our desire for an explanation is reasonable but not always possible to satisfy.
We want to understand why people point guns at other people, seemingly chosen largely at random, and pull the trigger. Then do it again. And again, until someone stops them. We want to understand why these incidents take place, mostly because we need to know why they happen if we’re going to keep the next one from happening.
I believe we also want to know because we desperately want to assure ourselves that we can keep ourselves safe–or better yet, that this simply won’t happen to us. And if we can make ourselves feel safer by believing these acts are committed by people on the margins, very different from us, and that these incidents can be predicted and prevented, we are eager to believe such a claim. So we swallow the myth that people with mental illness are dangerous and likely to commit acts of violence and therefore mental illness is the simple predictor we need.
But it’s not that simple. The truth is, we can’t always predict or prevent acts of violence. And the least predictable are these seemingly random outbursts like mass shootings. As the NPR article states, “It’s highly unlikely the violence could have been predicted. Just raising that question, psychologists and psychiatrists say, shows how much Americans misunderstand the link between mental illness and violence.” In fact, one psychiatrist called such predictive power “impossible.”
Contrary to very popular belief, people with mental illness–even very serious problems like schizophrenia–are not significantly more violent than other people. As the US Surgeon General stated, “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.” In fact, people with mental illness are far more likely to be victims of violence. For most people, mental illness makes them more vulnerable, not more violent.
Here are four important pieces of the truth: Mental illness does not flip the switch from docile to dangerous. We all have capacity for violence. We cannot truly distance ourselves from people affected by mental illness. And we all have capacity for “history of treatment for mental health” and “mental problems.”
Think about it: What if we really kept everyone with a “history of treatment for mental health” off our military bases? What if we banned from public places everyone who has been to counseling, has taken an antidepressant, has ever felt overwhelmed by anxiety, or might possibly be traumatized in the face of violence? Who would be left?
Mental illness is a subject surrounded by fear. And fear is often our first reaction to people with mental health problems too, whether they are showing symptoms or they merely mention their trouble. And when we are afraid of people, we aren’t very good at loving them. Whenever we interact with others primarily out of fear, our relationships move backward. We become more closed people. Our hearts contract protectively.
Sometimes this is necessary–even healthy. Fear can protect us. But irrational, unfounded fear is destructive when we choose to embrace it. In the case of our relationships with people who have mental illness, such fear is destructive both to us and to the ones we fear. It’s hurtful to families, churches, schools, workplaces, and communities. the more we let fear rule our responses, the more we nurture stigma. And the less likely people are to seek treatment to care for their mental health. After all, who wants to be labeled as someone with a “history of treatment for mental health”?
The antidote to fearful relationships is love, which opens our hearts and can keep them open. Love enables us to look at a person with mental illness and see the person apart from the illness. How might it look for you to choose love over fear?
© 2014 Amy Simpson.