Trigger Warnings: Murder, Suicide, Several Mental Illnesses, Assault and the recent Germanwings Plane Crash.
I’m mentally ill.
I have been since I was eleven. Never in my life have I committed a violent crime. I have never been physically violent with another human being. Most of my friends have mental illnesses, perhaps because I gravitate towards people who understand how it feels. My friends’ mental illnesses include: clinical depression, generalised anxiety disorder, social anxiety, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and post traumatic stress disorder.
Not one of them has ever committed an act of physical violence towards another person.
When a mentally ill person commits an act of violence, whether it be assault, murder, rape or even mass murder, authorities and media rush to talk about the mental illness in question. Speculation about the recent Germanwings tragedy has focused on the co-pilot*, whether he deliberately crashed the plane and if so, what his motive was. Specifically, whether some mental illness caused him to do such a terrible thing. Was he concealing his mental illness from his employer? Was he medicated? Do we need to change the rules around pilots and mental health?
None of this is relevant whatsoever. I’m guessing that’s probably a controversial statement, but bear with me. When a person commits a violent act, we need to stop asking questions about their mental health.
Because 1 in 4 people suffers from some form of mental illness in their lifetime and the unbelievably enormous majority never commits an act of violence.
Many people committing violent crimes don’t suffer from mental illness at all.
So why is a violent criminal’s mental health the first thing we ask questions about? Simple logic dictates that if there was a strong correlation between mental illness and violent crime, either most mentally ill people would commit violence or most violence would be committed by the mentally ill. Neither of these things is true. In fact, those with a psychiatric disorder are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators.
Of course, popular media has played a huge role in this misperception of mentally ill people as violent. Films, books and movies often portray violent criminals as suffering from a mental illness, and portray the mentally ill as violent. But in reality, for most mentally ill people, our daily struggles do not involve fighting the urge to violently murder someone. We are not ticking time bombs who will kill if we forget to take our medication. Our primary struggle is internal and doesn’t involve others at all.
Let me give you a for instance.
As I type this, I have music blaring through my headphones so loudly that it’s probably damaging my eardrums. Why would I do such a thing? Because the bathroom is being renovated and that involves a lot of banging and drilling. Annoying noises that anyone would want to block out. I have to block them out. Because banging and drilling are among the sounds that can trigger my psychosis.
“Psychosis! Doesn’t that mean violent? You’re dangerous!”
No. Psychosis and violence do not bear any relation and psychotic does not mean violent. Psychosis, put simply, is a disconnect from reality. Those banging sounds are not going to make me kill anybody, or even lightly slap someone. My psychosis involves hallucinations and delusions. I see, hear and feel things that are not there. I become paranoid. Last year, I had an episode in which I was completely convinced people around me were plotting to kill me. It didn’t make me violent. It just made me afraid. I locked myself in a room so no one could get me and called my mother for help.
I had a total disconnect from reality. I heard people saying things they were certainly not saying. I could feel spiders crawling in my brain. I believed things to be true that were not true and in some cases, not even possible.
It was horrible, it was frightening and it was exhausting. It did not make me hurt anyone.
Some people might hurt others while they are experiencing a psychosis similar to mine. But the vast majority are more like me, and withdraw into themselves.
Let’s talk about depression. Depression makes it difficult to get out of bed. It makes it hard to get enthusiastic about things you used to enjoy. Depression makes you despair, it makes you hate yourself and it makes you tired. It makes you stop caring about yourself, and you start to believe others don’t care about you either. In some cases, depression makes life so unpleasant that the sufferer commits suicide.
Depression does not make you want to kill other people.
So why are news articles discussing the Germanwings co-pilot and his possible depression and despair? That is relevant to why a person might want to kill himself, but not why he’d want to kill 150 other people. Depression is one of the most common mental illnesses in the world. If it made you want to kill people, there’d be a great deal more murder.
Mental illness doesn’t lead to homicide.
People who commit murder do so because they want to hurt another human being. Some people who commit murder have a mental illness. A great many more do not. In the USA, a possible plea in a criminal trial is “Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity”. If most violent criminals are mentally ill, you’d think that defense would come up all the time. If there was any chance whatsoever of being able to claim a mental illness and avoid jail, people would take it.
Just 0.85 percent of defendants in the USA claim they are “Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity”. Seventy percent of those later withdraw that plea when experts declare them to be legally sane. Think about how many people that is, committing crimes while in full possession of their reason and retaining the capacity to stop themselves if they wanted to. Well over 99 out of 100.
Our media needs to stop depicting the experience of a person with mental illness as violent and uncontrollable. Most people with mental illness are going about their lives every day, mixing peacefully with the rest of the community. You can’t tell the lady at the supermarket is bipolar. You don’t know that your barista is schizophrenic. You may even have no idea that a good friend is suffering from depression. People with mental illnesses are just like everybody else, but with the added struggle of trying to get by when sometimes our own brain seems like the enemy.
And on top of that, we have to constantly listen to people who equate our conditions with violence, as though we too are only one missed dosage away from killing somebody.
Have you ever had one of those really unpleasant colds? Where you can’t breathe properly through the mucus and your head feels all stuffy? Your everything hurts and it’s all so frustrating that you become short tempered and you get irritated about everything. If you murdered someone during that cranky, painful time, would you blame the cold? “I just couldn’t help myself? I was so short tempered because of the cold I had.”
It would be a ridiculous claim. If it were the cold that made you do it, everyone with a cold would be so irritable they murdered people, and that is obviously not the case. Having a cold didn’t make you forget that murdering others is wrong. Having a cold didn’t render you incapable of connecting actions to consequences. Anyone who suggested it does would have a gross misconception about what the common cold is.
And that’s how you sound to me when you suggest someone’s mental illness is the reason they killed someone else.
Some people want to harm other people and if they want to do it enough, they will. But I am pretty tired of hearing “he was schizophrenic” or “she suffered from extreme depression” like that explains it. That doesn’t explain it at all. All it does is imply that mental illness is the same as violent.
* I am choosing not to use the name of the co-pilot in question, because mass murderers are often motivated by a desire for fame and people to remember their name. Better to remember the names of victims than (ALLEGED) perpetrators.