Friday, September 4, 2009

Crazy Does Not Equal Violent

This is my first post in a series entitled "Crazy Does Not Equal...", in which I intend to explore the stereotypes about people with mental illnesses and how those stereotypes hurt people REGARDLESS of their mental health status. I have submitted the following to Melissa McEwan in hopes that she will use it as a guest post on Shakesville, which has a lot more readers than I do so far.

Full Disclosure: I have schizoaffective disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. I have suffered from one form or another of mental illness for most of my life, mostly depression in one form or another, anxiety, and various manifestations of PTSD. I am 33 years old, a ciswoman, white and Cherokee, divorced, mother of one completely awesome daughter, owned by two adorable tabby cats, bisexual with polyamorous tendencies, a proud bleeding-heart liberal, an eclectic pagan, and completely out of my tree.

I've always been hesitant to be open with people about my mental condition. Mental illness is still HUGELY stigmatized, and I don't want to be treated as if I'm somehow less than other people because my brain and mind are funky. But I've come to the realization that mental illness will remain stigmatized unless people with mental illnesses are open about their conditions and show the world that we're not what society would have the world believe.

People with mental illnesses are often stereotyped as violent, or, in contrast, figures of fun, to be mocked for “abnormal” behaviors. And if we're not to be feared or made fun of, we're childish and incapable of making our own decisions. Failing that, we're weak-willed or of poor character, often therefore leading to the conclusion that we're responsible for our conditions and could be “normal” if we'd just decide to be. On top of all that, we're often considered lacking in intelligence, which can be part and parcel of the “childish and incapable of making our own decisions” or “weak-willed or of poor character” tropes.

Let's lay this out one by one. In this post I'm going to address the stereotype of people with mental illnesses as violent. People with mental illnesses are FAR more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators. A study done by North Carolina State University and Duke University around 2000 revealed that people with serious mental illness (defined as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder [commonly called manic-depression], or psychosis [which is actually an umbrella term that covers a number of illnesses with symptoms involving hallucinations, delusions, and other disturbances in perception]) were 2.5 times more likely to be attacked, raped, or mugged than the general population. Another study showed that mental illness alone is a very poor predictor of future violence. (Pile on a substance abuse disorder, and you might have a problem, but mental illness alone, not so much. In fact, substance abuse alone is a MUCH better predictor of violent behavior, even without the presence of a mental illness.)

I'm going to put this in personal perspective. I needed to go stay with my parents for a while, shortly after I had finally told them about my condition. (They knew about some of my earlier struggles with depression and PTSD, but not about the psychotic symptoms nor the severity of my symptoms in adulthood.) My stepfather, who at that point had known me for over 20 years, during at least 10 of which I shared his home, asked me in all earnestness if he would wake up one morning with me standing over his bed holding a knife. It made me want to cry. In the moment, I answered, no, I'm not a danger to anyone (except myself, sometimes, but I didn't want to get into my self-injury and suicidal tendencies with him right then). Later on, I thought, “Jesus H. Christ on rollerskates, the man has known me for 2/3 of my life and he thinks I'd hurt him? Family? Someone I love, who has pulled my ass out of more slings than I care to count?”

And I'm not going to try to count the number of news stories that harp on the mental illness (or possible mental illness) of perpetuators of violence. Just to quote a recent one, how many of the stories covering the rampage on women of George Sodini characterized Sodini as mentally ill in some fashion ("crazy", "insane", insert adjective here)? I don't know if Sodini was mentally ill or not, I don't give a damn, and it's not the fucking point. The point is, he was a misogynist asshat who thought that all women were to blame for the fact that he couldn't get a date, and he got VALIDATION of that from numerous websites and books perpetuating the idea that women's bodies are public property and/or financial commodities. The other point is, even if he was mentally ill, his misogyny is what led him to shoot those women in that health club, NOT any mental condition, and by calling him "crazy" or "insane" or whatever, the media has done yet another disservice to people with mental illness. We have enough stigma to overcome without every news channel calling perpetrators of violence "crazy" or "insane" or whatever whenever some horrific act of violence occurs that often has little to nothing to do with mental illness and more to do with societal prejudices and beliefs taken to a violent extreme.

People with mental illnesses suffer enough from the illnesses themselves. In my own life, I've wrestled with suicide countless times; I've cut myself, scratched myself, beaten myself in the face and head. I also fight, EVERY SINGLE DAY, with perceptions that may or may not reflect reality. One of the symptoms of schizoaffective disorder is extremely vivid dreams. Sometimes I'm not sure if I dreamt something or if it actually happened. Sometimes I see things that either no one else can see (bugs crawling on walls or my skin) or that logic tells me cannot be (inanimate objects moving towards me menacingly). Sometimes, I'll see/read/hear something that triggers me into a panic attack. And that's just my life. That's my personal daily struggle, along with the other, more ordinary daily struggles like "what the hell am I going to cook for supper?" and "oh shit, I have to do laundry again" and "damn, the car needs an oil change."

And then the stigma piles onto the daily struggle. How many people suffer without help because they're afraid to ask because of stigma? How many people seek help but keep it a secret, not telling family or friends who might be willing and able to help, because of stigma?

There's been a series of public service announcements on TV (and according to that site, on radio, but I've never heard the radio ads) about how to deal with it if a friend tells you zie has a mental illness. They're really great ads; they tell the public that your friend is still your friend even if zie has a mental illness (which should be a colossal "DUH!" but often is not) and that continuing to be zir friend can be a HUGE help in zir treatment (which is very true), but, in the face of the number of times the media perpetuates stereotypes of people with mental illness, they are teaspoons emptying the sea.

So is this post, and the ones I'm planning to continue to explore the stereotypes of people with mental illnesses and how they hurt, not only people with mental illnesses, but everybody. People with mental illnesses are PEOPLE. We are human beings who deserve dignity and respect. We are here, we are real, and we are not the monsters we're made out to be.


  1. This is an excellent post, do hope it gets up on Shakesville.

    I used to think this was all about the fear of things we don't understand, but I now tend to think it is a myth that people actually enjoy. If Sodini did what he did because he was "nuts" then clearly all we need to do is round up the nuttters - simple! If Sodini did what he did because of misogyny endemic in our society, and because he made an outrageous choice which anyone with free will is capable of making, then that's far far messier. I wrote a bit about this following the Virginia Tech massacre a few years back.

    Very much looking forward to the other posts.

  2. Thank you so much! The lovely Ms. McEwan is taking a holiday with her husband right now, so I'm not sure that she has even seen the submission, let alone evaluated it for posting on Shakesville.

    I was actually going to write "Crazy Does Not Equal Stupid" first, because that is my personal pet peeve of stereotypes about people with mental illnesses, but I decided that "Violent" might be a better starting point, as that is a more harmful stereotype than "Stupid."

    The expression comes from something I said in a support group for people with affective disorders. Our group leader had gotten the group's permission to allow a couple of nursing students who wished to specialize in psychiatric nursing to sit in on a group session. After we did our normal group stuff, the leader asked us if we had anything to say to the students that might help them become good psychiatric nurses. I looked all three of them in the eyes, one by one, and then said, "Crazy does not equal stupid. Do not treat your patients as if they're idiots just because they are in a psychiatric clinical setting." There was a moment of silence, and then nearly unanimous agreement from the other members of the group, all of whom were adults and had seen a LOT of psychiatric/psychological health care providers and knew EXACTLY the attitude I meant.