There’s been a lot of talk lately about mental illness in the wake of the latest school shooting in the United States. When someone does something so terrible, so unimaginable, we look for explanations. He must have been crazy, we say.
Here’s the thing, though: sane people have committed horrific acts of violence. I mean, I haven’t looked at the psychological profile of every person who ever worked in a death camp or filled a mass grave or followed the commands of a warlord or shot up a public place. But I’m fairly certain they hadn’t all had a psychotic break. Human capacity for violence and hatred is far deeper than we care to admit.
Once in university I was in a play about the Holocaust. The director asked us to do an exercise one day. He named one woman in the cast the scapegoat, and we were instructed to blame her for everything and to call her names. We were acting, of course. Slowly at first, we began to insult her. Everyone in the room yelled at her, and our words rose in vehemence and anger. As she burst into real tears, the director called a halt. I remember stopping abruptly, confused by the tension in the room. As I thought about it, I was horrified to realize how easily I had slipped into being hateful. A little social permission and a few others to join in with and I was right there, touching the violence within myself.
And it was so easily incited.
It’s a moment that still haunts me.
Linking explosive violence with mental illness increases the perception that mentally ill people are dangerous and scary, which increases stigma against them, which makes it harder for them to ask for the help they need.
A study conducted by Mother Jones found that 38 of the 62 people who committed mass shootings in the United States in the past 30 years had displayed signs of mental health problems before their crime. That’s a statistic that has sparked calls for better mental health care in that country, undoubtedly an important thing. But it’s also shocking in another way. It means that 24 shooters had displayed no signs of mental illness. That’s a significant minority.
It’s true that the mentally ill don’t perceive reality in an accurate way, but mostly that means they’re paralyzingly afraid of going to the grocery store, or they’re thinking about ways to kill themselves because they believe that everyone would be better off without them, or they’re scrubbing the floor again at 3:00 in the morning, or they’re throwing their possessions into the river. Sometimes, yes, they are behaving in ways that could potentially harm others.
But you know what? Non-mentally-ill people do stuff that’s not consistent with a firm grip on how reality works all the freaking time. They do stuff that hurts themselves and others. They read horoscopes. They base jump into the Cave of Swallows. They get mad when you didn’t do what they really hoped you were going to do, despite never mentioning what they wanted. They follow homeopathy. They try highly addictive drugs for the first time. They hit their children. They run themselves over with their own cars by accident.
A person doesn’t have to be Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-certified crazy to do crazy things. A person doesn’t have to be intrinsically evil to commit evil acts. While better mental health care and stricter gun control are important pieces of the puzzle, what is it in North American culture that makes them feel they have permission to do these things in the first place?
(By Joyce MacDonald, reprinted from the Inverness Oran, December 19th, 2012)