The Stigma of Connecting Mental Illness and Violence

I’ve been quiet since Friday.  The Connecticut tragedy incited a PTSD reactive response, and to keep myself safe, I pretty much shut down my online presence.  Everything I read, whether it was pleas for better gun control or essays on the prevalence of mental illness in the psyche of your typical mass murderer, sent me spiraling into a place I find difficult to describe.

Even worse, I’m having a manic episode, or I was having it right up until yesterday.  I don’t like talking about my own mental illness.  I’m ashamed of it.  But I try to have courage and talk about it because I hope that by speaking out, I can educate others and help other people who are mentally ill.

This country needs to be willing to look at mental health issues even when there isn’t a tragedy.  We need to attend to it when the small defeats and victories of friends and neighbors take place around us day in and day out.  And for the love of all things good, we need to be really, really careful when something tragic occurs.  Before we blame mental illness or gun control laws or try to assign blame to anyone or any single condition, we’d better take our time to research all the issues and get the answers right.

I’ve read a lot of articles, or to be honest, skimmed the ones that were too painful, that blamed the shooting on mental illness.  Every time I read something like that, I cringe.  The mentally ill are not more likely to commit acts of violence; in fact, they are much more likely to be the victims of violence.  As painful and scary as it is for me to seek help when I’m feeling ill, it’s tenfold times more painful and scary to get the help I need in a charged atmosphere of blame-storming for a heinous mass murder.

As S.E. Smith wrote:

As always in cases of rampage violence, mental illness has been dragged into the mix, and I’ve been watching the Internet for the last three days with a growing sense of both deja vu and horror. None of the things being said are new — all of them are in fact very bone-achingly familiar — and all of them are extremely unhelpful, dangerous and counterproductive.

The American Psychiatric Association states that the vast majority of people who commit violent crimes do not suffer from mental illness.

Substance abuse is a much bigger risk factor for violent behavior; in people with untreated mental illness (a shockingly large number due to the difficulty involved in accessing services), drug abuse is a confounding factor in acts of violence in many cases, not the underlying mental illness. Socioeconomic status, age, gender and history of violence are also more significant indicators of the risk of violence.

You’re more likely to be hit by lightning than to be injured by someone who suffers from schizophrenia.

And yet if you believe the stories and anecdotes widely published this weekend, you will do what people typically do: you will stay the hell away from mentally ill people.  Each time a tragic event like the one in Connecticut occurs and mental illness is raised as a proximate cause, people pull away even more from the mentally ill.  In other words, the very stigma associated with mental illness intensifies, and those of us who most need love, compassion and support receive even less.mentalillnessstigma

I’m one of the lucky ones.  I get the treatment and the care and the compassion that so many of my ill brethren do not receive.  Most people don’t even know that I’m ill.  You see, I know the warning signs.  In the case of manic episodes, my mind starts racing.  Creative thoughts pile onto creative thoughts, and then it gets faster and faster and I can’t stop working won’t stop working don’t want to stop working and it’s amazing the things I can get done . . . but I feel an overload, an imbalance, a systems shutdown approaching.  But like a jet plane hurtling through the air on cruise control, I cannot switch directions, not even when I know exactly how it’s going to end: nose down in the mountainside.

Crashing hurts, and it makes no sense to an outsider, but with time and medication and therapy, I’ve gotten much better at engineering less destructive crash landings.  The most important thing I do is to radio ahead to the tower, or tell a few friends that I’m losing altitude too fast, and that I am, frankly, feeling ill.  In other words, despite the stigma that attaches to my illness, I reach out for the help I need.

I was on the phone this morning with one of my best friends, and she just sort of sat with me.  She told me that she loved me no matter what, and that she wasn’t going anywhere, and that my illness didn’t make her not want to be my friend.  In fact, a few of my friends called me.  They won’t let me fall through the cracks, and when I crash land, they’re there to pick up the pieces.

That’s what grieves me about so many of the articles I tried so hard not to read this weekend.  For every one that begged for compassion, three more confused mental illness with violent propensities.  And you know what this does?  It rains down shame, ugly, dark sickly-familiar shame on those of us who suffer from mental illness.  As gut-wrenchingly difficult as it is to seek treatment, this sort of fear-mongering makes it that much harder for people like me to seek help.

It takes courage to seek help, and it takes courage to admit you’re ill.  Fallacious arguments that connect mental illness to violent propensities make it even harder.  Please have compassion and use discernment when you address issues of mental illness.  After all, you never know who could be affected by the words you use.




48 comments on “The Stigma of Connecting Mental Illness and Violence
  1. Incredibly humbling for me El. You have such a critical voice in this conversation. Thank you thank you thank you for your honesty.

  2. OneHotMess says:

    Amen, sister. As you know, I am here, just not up all night 😉 You can catch me at 5:35 a.m., though 😉 I love you!

  3. Jen says:

    El…how brave you are to talk about an un-talkable issue. My Mom was a sufferer of several severe, mental health issues and she could never admit or accept help and in the end, she took her own life after years of abusing others and herself. It affects me profoundly that you are willing to address, admit and ask for help, I wish my Mom could have done that. Thank you for your gift of words. <3

    • Aw Jen, thank you so very much. I am so sorry to hear about your mom. I can only imagine how hard that was for you growing up, and just, well, gosh. There is that quiet voice inside me head that whispers, “There but for the grace of God go I,” and with that realization comes compassion both for myself and for others. xoxo

  4. El, Never be ashamed of your illness. Be proud of the fact that you recognize the issues and seek treatment to live a normal life. That is something to be proud of. That is something that inspires other people. You took control of a situation and made it better for yourself. You have my utmost respect and admiration for that.
    The Connecticut issue, is awful and very disturbing. This young man was being home schooled and treated for Asburgers, I think. So that is a form of autism and I understand it. THIS is not a mental illness and this usually is symptomatic of a victim of bulling, and not an aggressive violent act. So lawyers if he survived would use mental illness as a defense more than a cause, which it our justice system. Also gun control would not have made a difference here. His mother legally owned the guns and was a avid target shooter, so perfectly legal and able to own the weapons, in Connecticut which has very strict gun laws. We may never know what caused this deplorably act. This young man killed himself (An act of a coward, not a mental condition), The Politicians will make a statement and state we have to do something, but in the end, this will die down and disappear from the news. The NRA will continue to hold a strong lobby position and elect politicians who will keep the amendment rights active and free and until we as a total society take responsibility, these types of awful incidents will happen again…

    • Thank you so very much for your kind remarks, Michael. And I agree that we’ll probably never know what caused this crime. Oddly enough, I accept that to an extent. There is evil in this world. For sure I will try to combat it, but as far as I understand it, I must trust in God and hope–always hope–that we as a people will find a way to live a better way. And yes–it was an act of cowardice. Oh amen to that. I do hope that we as a free society can engage in civil, constructive dialogue to prevent further acts of violence. To be honest, I’m willing to consider everything!

  5. I am so with you on this. My grandson, 10 years old, has high functioning Asperger’s. When this tragedy happened I immediately felt protective–wondering how this would make others perceive anyone with social or mental illnesses. Of course I felt horrified by this tragedy, and my heart is filled with sympathy for the families too.
    I appreciate that you are striving to help others understand mental illnesses by posting such personal information on your blog.

    • Thank you so much Teresa, and much love to you and to your grandson. I’ve read several good articles that explain how autism and Asperger’s do not cause violent propensities. It’s a shame that there is so much misinformation on these issues!

  6. —-Now I even love you MORE.

    Sending you warm hugs from Minnesota. xxoo

    Ps. this murderous spree was not caused by aspergers or autism. (That is offensive)

    These killings were pure EVIL.

    • Thank you so much, dear friend, and I’ll take those Minnesotan hugs!! I agree 100% re autism and asperger’s, as I mentioned above in my response to Teresa. The killings were pure evil, and I think, I really think, that the devil is the true source of evil. Love you!

  7. Andrea says:

    I agree with you and feel ashamed that I got pulled into this hype. Thank you for bringing me back to reality! Mental Illness does run in my family. Mostly Depression and Bipolar. I Have Aspergers Syndrome a very mild form of it. I am blessed that my family understands and has fought for services for me in the past and they are here now wherever I need them. I do have a few friends that are aware of my Aspegers. They are the friends that have it as well or something similar. We are each others heroes and support system. I am so proud of you for writing this! I know it took a lot of Courage!

    • Please don’t feel ashamed Andrea! This is such a complex issue, and it’s hard not to be swayed by the various arguments. I’m sorry about the MI that runs in your family! And as I mentioned above, autism/Asperger’s is in no way associated with a risk for increased violent propensities. I have close friends with Asperger’s and they make great friends. Thank you re the words pride and courage, and many hugs!

  8. Elyse says:

    So well said, El. I don’t really know what to say except that we ignore our society and let it get shot up, we ignore our mentally ill and let them live on the streets, let them hurt themselves (far more often than they hurt others) and ignore them in their misery. We need to take a damn good look in the mirror. What sort of a society do we want to live in and leave behind.

    • Thank you so much, Elyse, thank you. And I am right there with you, nodding and agreeing. One thing I can say, and it makes sense to say it to you especially, is that after this weekend, I’m ready to listen to what everyone has to say, whether it be on the issue of guns or mental illness. I think the situation is complex and sad and scary and we, as a people, should put it all on the table and really try to figure out how to stop the killing and the mistreatment and the abuse . . .

  9. I only say this, I love you no matter anything I love you. The rest Elyse said.

  10. I love that the blogger/wordpress hissy fit has relented and has allowed me to see this brave and moving post from you today. Thank you for your courage and your honesty. Mental illness is just that, an illness. Yes it can be very frightening, both for the person with the illness and those who care about them. So can cancer. So can my illness, multiple sclerosis but, and it is a big but, no-one suggests that I should be avoided, treated as dangerous, and indeed treated as if my illness might be contagious.
    It is past time that a more rational, and caring approach was adopted. World-wide. Here, while access to mental health care is a teeny bit better, the same prejudices exist, and the same lies are propagated. I am so, so sorry.

    • Oh my gosh!! I know I responded to this–talk about WordPress insanity!! Amen to scary. All illnesses are scary and potentially isolating, and all we can hope is that no one will treat those who suffer as if they are contagious or scary. I so agree with you as far as the need for adopting a rational, caring approach. Thank you so, so much for your kind comments. xoxo

  11. I don’t care what people think or say or judge or whisper about … I am your friend. Always.

  12. Doe says:

    Amazing work dear…I love you!!

  13. I am grateful for you speaking these words that open the possibility of compassion and healing to others. For many people you are a light, but especially so, I believe, to those who cannot find advocates or friends in their own offline communities. Keep doing what you’re doing, friend, as long as it is in your heart. You are moving hearts. I love you.

  14. JudahFirst says:

    I completely agree with you, El, and appreciate your willingness to share your own struggles with so many friends and strangers. Your bravery astounds.

    My only comment is that most of the negative junk regarding mental illness being behind this shooting comes from 1. ignorance, and 2. FEAR. I can’t tell you how many people I have read on FB or talked to this week who said something about not knowing if they were safe. This kind of act scares people to death.

    Who can know if someone at their child’s school is on the edge of doing something so horrific right in their town? And this is precisely what the media feeds on: TERROR. They take advantage of people’s ignorance of mental illness (you know, the way we ignore it or shove it inside an institution – shame on US) and then use that advantage to incite more fear. Fear sells, as any statistic regarding horror films will tell you. For me, this media tactic is despicable. More-so because it leads to even more persecution/separation/institutionalization of the people who suffer from mental illness (I realize some institutions are helping people, but certainly many are just a way to get the mentally ill out of sight). In the end, My Inner Chick is exactly right: this was an act of pure evil.

    Okay, rant over. Thanks again for a wonderful, insightful post. God bless you and Merry Christmas!

  15. aparnauteur says:

    You’ve provided a fresh perspective on this whole issue which is pretty much divided between gun control laws and being wary of the mentally ill. I cannot even imagine the kind of courage it must tek to seek help. I hope this post helps in clearing the muddied waters, and inspires people to provide the much-needed love and support.

    • Thank you so much my friend! As far as courage to seek help, in some respects, most of us wait until we’re seriously messed up before seeking the help we need! Sort of like a car being towed to a gas station once it stops in the middle of a highway and starts coughing and steaming! I hope you’re well!

  16. pegoleg says:

    “ugly, dark, sickly familiar shame” such powerful, well-used words. I’m sorry for your pain, El. Thanks for this thought-provoking post.

  17. At first I was trying not to read anything. Then I started quietly reading absolutely everything. Now my head is in danger of exploding. The finger pointing is really frustrating. There were clearly a lot of things that went wrong for this to occur.

    My thoughts are more complicated than can fit on this page, but obviously the family needed more help than they could receive and in a timely manner.

  18. I agree in what you said. Sorry that the events created you pain as well as undue anxiety. This is so true, ” And for the love of all things good, we need to be really, really careful when something tragic occurs. Before we blame mental illness or gun control laws or try to assign blame to anyone or any single condition, we’d better take our time to research all the issues and get the answers right.” The media seems to be fixated in blaming mental illness for the horrible act of the killer. I read in one blog a mother who’s son has Asperger’s Disease and she said that patient’s don’t go into a dangerous rampage to cause someone’s life in the most horrific way. In fact they can be withdrawn and does can be possible victims by others themselves. I don’t know why they need to find an excuse for the killer’s behavior. Why can’t people accept that people can be bad and evil in certain events and that’s it. It is not fair for those who suffered trauma and other mental issues because it makes them vulnerable emotionally and psychologically. Thank you for speaking out. People need to know what you think and feel . Someone has to share something personal. Take care. Merry Christmas.

    • Yes–absolutely . . . we need to accept that there may in fact be no explanation, at least no acceptable one, for the evil actions that sometimes are committed. It’s too bad that we as humans, in our rush to explain why things happen, end up “blame-storming” instead. Thank you so much for being a voice of reason and compassion, and thank you for listening!

  19. Nina Badzin says:

    Such an honest and well said statement here, statements, really. Sharing your truth is such a service, El. I know you do it to help people and I just has to. The way you so clearly describe that manic up and down gives me greater insight to people I know and love who are not as open. THAT is the service you’re doing, among many.

    • Thank you so much Nina. And you’re right . . . whenever I doubt whether I should speak out, I weigh the possible condemnation or rejection that might follow against the potential for helping other people. And people keep thanking me for being honest, and that makes it worth taking these risks. Ahh yes–I wish someone had described mania to me when I was younger, and had no idea why I acted so, um, wild! Thank you!

  20. I too had to shut out the constant barrage of news and media. I lived through 9-11 and it was starting to stir up my PTSD. I get a bit of what you’ve been going through. I hooked up all my email accounts to my apple email so I no longer have to read the headlines and see the pictures splashed across

    I think violence due to mental illness is very rare. I’m also not sure what was going on inside his head. I don’t think any of us will ever know. When things don’t make sense, we latch on to anything that explains it away.

    This cannot be explained away. And that hurts.

    I am really proud to be your blog buddy. One because you have so much courage to talk about things that are uncomfortable to talk about. Two because you own who you are. Three because you say what needs to be said, even when it’s hard to say it. El, you are an inspiration. Keep writing. Keep being you. 🙂

    • Ah yes–another 9/11 survivor. Scariest day of my life. :Sigh: So I don’t watch or listen to this sort of news. But I will be researching this story in a little bit as I write my next novel–but only when it no longer hurts so much to read about it.

      Amen to it hurting when we can’t understand things in our lives. It does hurt–it goes against our nature qua humans.

      Awww that last paragraph made me feel so grateful. Thank you so, so much my friend. I’m so grateful to be your friend!!

  21. Beautifully said, my friend. I find myself pulling away from media and social media reaction during times of crisis for the same reasons. I’m not sure why people insist on jumping to blame in any circumstance – something in our nature needs to know why, and when we don’t know, we make up the answers. People jump to blame anything that seems to be “separate” from themselves, and mental illness often bears the weight of their fear of uncertainty (kind of like how obesity bears the weight of all physical illness, even though skinny people get sick too).
    I’m so glad you have support, and have done so much healing and self care that you can even identify those times which you need a little extra. You are loved and precious, and a beautiful gift to this world.

  22. Yes crashing hurts, and yes, I have been in the cupboard about my mental anguishes for decades, but I just won’t be any more.

    I don’t bring it up at work, mind, feeling that HR would prick their ears, & if I had a sick day might decide it wasn’t “really” and might see me in a way which would lead to eventual “letting go”. So, no, mental illness is not talked about until such as this Connecticut slaughter.

    I love your words in the red square – SPOT ON SPOT ON.

    A great post, El, just great.

    Hope you pick up quick… take care.

2 Pings/Trackbacks for "The Stigma of Connecting Mental Illness and Violence"
  1. […] I’m one of the lucky ones.  I get the treatment and the care and the compassion that so many of my ill brethren do not receive.  Most people don’t even know that I’m ill.  You see, I know the warning signs.  In the case of manic episodes, my mind starts racing.  Creative thoughts pile onto creative thoughts, and then it gets faster and faster and I can’t stop working won’t stop working don’t want to stop working and it’s amazing the things I can get done . . . but I feel an overload, an imbalance, a systems shutdown approaching.  But like a jet plane hurtling through the air on cruise control, I cannot switch directions, not even when I know exactly how it’s going to end: nose down in the mountainside… On Stigmas of Mental Illness […]

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