The Violence of the Mental Health Excuse

It’s become a trope. A white man is involved in a shooting, and within moments people are rushing over themselves to call him mentally ill. Sometimes this happens even before there is a suspect on which to pin the label. There are several cartoons and memes out there depicting the trend, and comparing it to the coverage received by people of colour in similar circumstances.

Whenever people are called on it however, there is always someone rushing in to defend the idea claiming that no “sane” person would commit such a heinous act of violence. That that level of obsession, that level of hatred, could only be the result of there being something mentally wrong with a person.

I understand why we need to believe that. Growing up listening to tales of good and evil, the villain is always readily identifiable. Whether an underground network of evil super villains, the wicked witch, or even just the bully at school, there is always some way of telling who the bad people are. To borrow from Christian mythology: some mark of Cain identifying the evil inside.

Growing up, we learn that that isn’t the case. The bad guy can be the neighbourhood’s favourite dad, it can be a respected member of the community, he can be the handsome guy at the coffee shop, and he can be anyone. Academically we know that, but we’ve been conditioned to think that there has to be something wrong with someone in some way, some thing that makes them different from everyone else. Because otherwise we have to accept that anyone is capable of doing something like this. And if anyone is capable of doing something like this, then we have to accept a part of the blame for benefitting from systems of oppression that make things like this possible.

The implications of an accusation like that however are far reaching. They impact the lives of many people already struggling with oppression negatively. Let’s take the case of the AME terrorist as an example. When you blame his actions on mental illness you are simultaneously being racist and ableist.

Why racist?

When you insist that the only way hatred like this can exist is if someone is mentally ill, you ignore what people of colour have been saying for years. You ignore all their experiences with racism. You are actively saying that you don’t believe them. Because if you did, then you would accept that hatred is not a symptom of mental illness but something we are raised with. Something we are taught every single day whether we realize it or not.

The days of lynching are not passed, they’ve only changed in appearance. No longer do they look like white hooded men burning crosses and hanging black men, though even this still happens.  Instead, they look like victims of hatred being depicted as having deserved death. They look like murderers of black people being allowed to walk free without punishment or repercussion. They look like a white man walking into a church full of people and opening fire.

Providing all the mental health services won’t stop things like this from happening because even in the unlikely case that he was mentally ill, that was not the cause of this terrorist attack. The cause was a society that gives silent and sometimes not so silent support to racists. Our media, our governments, our legal systems, our schools, employers, everything constantly reinforces racial bias in our culture. The cause was a nurtured and developed hatred of people of colour. Nor is this hatred uncommon.

The KKK is still an active organization, as are several other white supremacist organizations. The two terms served by Obama have been punctuated by racist epithets and accusations thrown his way. Internet hate groups and trolls use racial slurs as a matter of course.

These same people who provide excuses for the white men involved in these acts of terror are conspicuously silent when the acts of terror are perpetrated by people of colour. If white men need an excuse, if hatred is the result of mental illness, why is this not the case when the perpetrator isn’t white?

Why Ableist?

The conversation that follows an event such as this usually centers on the lack of availability of mental health services in the United States and in many other western nations.  On the one hand, this discussion is an important one to have. It is true that there is not enough easy access to mental health care. Even in Canada, where we praise ourselves as being the shining example of socialized healthcare, it can be difficult to be effectively treated for mental illness. Visits to psychologists are not covered by OHIP (Ontario Health Insurance Plan. Although healthcare is ), and while it is possible to get visits to a social worker or psychiatrist covered, in most cases access is limited to a few visits at most. Without secondary coverage of some kind, it can be difficult to get the necessary consistent care that is often essential to continuing good health.

What most of these conversations ignore, however, is how access to mental healthcare is also the result of stigma surrounding mental health care and illness.  A stigma that is worsened by society and media’s insistence at portraying mental illness as the cause of violence.

What the media and society ignores is that people with mental illnesses are exponentially more likely to be the victims of violence than its perpetrators. 

Mental illness is not necessary for violence. Think of the army. When applying to be a member of the armed forces, you are required to undergo a psychological evaluation. In order to qualify you must be seen to be sound of mind, and yet if you are serving as an infantryman one of your job descriptions is killing people. When applying to be a police officer, you are also expected to undergo psychological tests, and yet police officers have been implicated in violence on more than one occasion. The simple truth is that violence is much more prevalent in our society than mental illness. We know this to be true which is why we do not allow every murderer, wife beater, assaulter, etc. to use a defence of mental illness in criminal proceedings.

Many people with particularly stigmatized mental illnesses are frequently and aggressively questioned as to whether or not they are medicated. This of course, without any consideration of the different ways that mental illnesses can be treated, and the simple fact that not everyone reacts to medication the same ways. “Being Medicated” is not some status that exists as a binary opposite to having mental health and is not an indicator of whether someone’s mental health is being properly managed. Neither is the act of being medicated something that should be shamed.

Because of the erroneous perception of mental illness as being linked to criminal behaviour, it can be very difficult for people with these conditions to find safe places to live. People with conditions like schizophrenia for example, have been known to receive threats from neighbours despite having done nothing, simply because they exist.

When we equate mental illness with criminal behaviour, we create a culture that fears mental illness. That makes it more difficult to exist as a person with mental illness while still being an accepted member of society.

When you say that people like the terrorist who shot up the AME church, like the people who send threats of rape, murder, arson, devastation, who write racist slurs, when you say that these people must have done what they did because of mental illness, you put more lives in danger.

Stop making excuses and open your eyes.

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