Stop Implying That People Use Mental Illness as an Excuse for Violence

I’ve discussed the false claim that mental illness and violence are linked at length here — and I’ve also debunked the claim that mentally ill people ‘get off‘ when they’re convicted of crimes by reason of their mental illness. (Yes, because long-term institutionalisation, quite probably in a facility that doesn’t provide many options in terms of mental health services, followed by poor integration into society afterwards if someone is ever released at all, is totally ‘getting off.’) But there’s something else that’s been irking me lately, and it’s the tendency of people — on all ends of the political spectrum — to claim that people hide behind mental illness when acts of violence are committed.

First of all, this claim repeats the false assumption that mental illness causes violence and that mentally ill people are violent, reinforcing it for society. It also carries a sinister note, implying that people with health conditions that can, in some cases, affect reasoning and judgment shouldn’t have those conditions taken into account when they are facing legal and social penalties for crimes.

It’s tricky to discuss this subject without singling out specific examples or memes, which is not something I want to do, because the point isn’t what one person said one time, or which meme was spread by millions of people, but rather an overall trend. There seems to be a widely-believed sense in the community at large that people hide behind mental illness, when really, it’s the other way ’round: Mental illness is routinely and aggressively scapegoated when it comes to acts of violence, and claiming that it gets used as some kind of shield or curtain is patently absurd.

Crazy people can do terrible, awful, violent things. So can sane people. Their actions aren’t usually linked to their mental health status, but to a score of intersecting factors that can peak in a single terrible act or a sustained pattern of violence and abusive behaviour. When evaluating the causality of an awful situation, people are quick to assign blame to mental illness, without even knowing the mental health status of the accused. Obviously, the situation must have developed because a crazy person was involved, and there’s no other earthly reason — to pretend otherwise would be absurd.

Does that sound like the use of mental illness as a shield to you? I’d argue just the opposite. It sounds to me like people are assigning moral judgment on mentally ill people, claiming that mental illness is intrinsically bad and that people with mental health conditions are scary and should be locked up and otherwise punished for the simple crime of being alive and mentally ill. This is the same kind of value judgment we see placed on other classes of people — one we rightly condemn, because it is wrong, but for some reason, it’s tolerated when it comes to mentally ill people.

There absolutely are people who decide to use their mental illness as an excuse to be terrible people, and their motivations should rightly be questioned, because their tactics are dubious at best. For one thing, if your strategy is to receive a lighter punishment or to be treated more fairly, you’re actually better off establishing your sanity than your insanity. For another, deflecting a crime onto mental illness elides other factors involved, which, from a social standpoint, is a terrible thing — and from a personal one, closes a lot of avenues of defense in court. Someone who claims to have been affected by mental illness when committing an act of violence may not be addressing underlying issues, like frustration and anger with society. And, of course, those people also hurt the entire mental health community by making it that much harder to be open about mental illness, and that much more difficult to discuss mental health when it does intersect with crime — as, for example, when an unstable person with schizophrenia commits a crime because she’s driven to by her delusional state.

For the most part, though, mentally ill people don’t try to shield themselves behind their conditions when it comes to addressing their actions and being honest about their motivations. Saying that they do, or claiming that there’s a cultural trend of doing so, is dishonest and hateful. It’s also hateful to act like there aren’t serious consequences for being a mentally ill person accused of a crime — again, whether or not your condition played a role. And to suggest that people hide behind mental illness is to elide the very real and painful experiences of mentally ill people who experience hallucinations, delusions, breaks with reality, and other symptoms that can make it difficult for them to understand what is going on around them.

It’s hardly a ‘shield’ to say that you didn’t comprehend what was happening at the time of a crime, or to state that you feel genuine remorse for an act you don’t even remember committing. People aren’t exactly ‘hiding behind’ mental illness when they acknowledge that their mental health may have played a role in a crime — especially when you consider that doing so inevitably sentences them to institutionalisation, often without a trial, something that is supposed to be a constitutional right.

Yeah, it’s really hiding behind mental illness to effectively incarcerate yourself until a team of psychiatrists determines that you’re ready to face a courtroom, a process that may take months or years. People sure are getting the better of the legal system by shielding themselves in a warm cocoon of crazy to avoid consequences for their actions and be treated like special snowflakes.

Image: flowers, Hege, Flickr