We Need to Talk About Mental Illness – But Not Because of High-Profile Violence

Imagine a disheveled man sitting alone on a street in a major metropolitan area. He’s conversing with and yelling at people, though the people he’s talking with and yelling at don’t appear to be there. As people pass, they give this man a wide berth because they’re scared of him. Pretty understandable, right? You don’t know what this man is going to do. He’s “crazy” and probably dangerous, right?

Let’s cut to the heart of things. Assuming this man’s behavior is exclusively due to mental illness (drugs and alcohol change things), the odds are this guy is less dangerous to other people than someone without mental illness, even though people often think of mental illness and violence as linked. For the most part, those suffering from mental illness are less likely to harm others than someone you’d think of as “normal.” The vast majority of violent acts are committed by people who don’t have mental illness. Yet, in the wake of tragedies–especially after mass shootings in the US–the media narrative we often hear places a focus on mental health, saying if we adequately treat mental illness, a lot of violence will supposedly be prevented. As a rule, that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

Don’t get me wrong. I deeply wish we treated mental health better in the US. It’s still wrong to use the false idea of mental illness and violence being linked as a part of the media and political narrative of tragedies. Our mission at Take This is to fight the stigma surrounding mental health, so people need to know these facts.

But why do we commonly link the two ideas together? There is a common human behavior to categorize ourselves in groups of “our people” and “the other people.” One hypothesis on why we do that is to inflate our own self-esteem. Typically, people want to feel good about themselves and the people they associate with, and it comes at the cost of thinking poorly of others. Variants on the thought, “We’re the good ones. We wouldn’t act like those people,” are a common way of thinking.

Another thinking trap people tend to fall into is something called the fundamental attribution error, which is when we attribute negative behaviors of others to something about them as a person (usually in the form of a label), whereas we attribute negative behaviors of ourselves to something about the circumstances (i.e. “That person changed lanes at the last-second because she’s a moron. Oh, me? You saw what happened. I was forced over! I had to!”) We pretty much all do these things to varying degrees. This is another convenient way to separate the “us” from the “them.”

Beyond these biases in our thinking, two of the most infamous studies in psychology history (Stanley Milgram’s Obedience Experiment and the Phillip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Study) showed that most of us, regardless of mental illness, are more capable of violent, inhuman acts than we would like to think. It’s a sobering thought. To paraphrase a famous social psychologist Elliot Aronson: we are not rational beings, we are rationalizing. So we purge these dissonant, vulnerable thoughts from our minds and scapegoat who we can. In this case, those with mental illness.

How do we fight this? Well… remember the facts. Sure, with 1 in 4 people in the US estimated to be diagnosed with a mental illness in their lifetime, statistically some of those people will commit violent acts, but the majority of violent crimes are committed by those without mental illness. Also, remember that the people who suffer the most severe types of mental illness are more likely to be the victims of violence. As tough as it is to think, humans have been inhuman to each other for millennia, and for all sorts of reasons: money, power, revenge, religion, jealousy, and so many more. To assume that people only commit violent acts when they are mentally ill takes an already stigmatized population and shoves yet another false stigma onto them.

We should continue to seek ways to curb violence, but scapegoating a vulnerable population is not the way to do so.