The first tragedy, of course, is the senseless death of six people and wounding of several others including Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords a week and a half ago. A second tragedy arises from the first. This second tragedy follows on the heels of every random act of mass violence.
The second tragedy is the stereotyping of all people who live with mental illness as unstable and violent individuals. The media has devoted a great deal of attention to alleged killer Jerod Loughner’s mental illness, as if his mental illness explains his decision to take up his legally purchased Glock handgun and open fire on innocents.
But if Loughner does indeed have mental illness, his mental illness does not explain his actions. Some people who have mental illness become violent. But then many people who do not live with mental illness become violent too.
Similarly, in 2007 a Virginia Tech undergraduate, Seung-Hui Cho, opened fire on fellow students, killing several. Cho had a clear history of mental health problems, and the media made much of that fact.
When a horror like this shooting happens we ask, “Why?” We want answers both because people like to point fingers and place blame and because people want to find out if they can take steps to reduce the risk of a similar event in the future.
But pointing a finger at mental illness in general as the reason for this massacre smears and stereotypes a large swath of humanity.
The link between mental illness and violent behavior is promoted by the entertainment media as well. According to the United States Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), “The National Mental Health Association reported that, according to a survey for the Screen Actors’ Guild, characters in prime time television portrayed as having a mental illness are depicted as the most dangerous of all demographic groups: 60 percent were shown to be involved in crime or violence (three times the average rate).”
Instead of news media hype and entertainment fiction, here are some facts (all from SAMHSA):
- Research has shown that the vast majority of people who are violent do not suffer from mental illnesses. (American Psychiatric Association, 1994).
- . . . [T]he absolute risk of violence among the mentally ill as a group is still very small and . . . only a small proportion of the violence in our society can be attributed to persons who are mentally ill. (Mulvey, 1994)
- People with psychiatric disabilities are far more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violent crime. (Appleby, et.al., 2001)
- A new study by researchers at North Carolina State University and Duke University has found that people with severe mental illness — schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or psychosis — are 2 1⁄2 times more likely to be attacked, raped or mugged than the general population. (Chamberlain, Claudine. “Victims, Not Violent: Mentally Ill Attacked at a Higher Rate,” ABC News).
I hope and pray that the soul-searching and investigation and planning that follow the Tucson shooting will reduce the likelihood that such an incident will happen again. I also hope and pray that the tragedy will prompt people to get a truer picture of mental illness.