Blaming Mental Illness

One of the other modern phenomena we have here in the U.S. is blaming mental illness, the mentally ill, and mental health systems in general for sensational news. This is especially noteworthy when the news happens to involve a gun and a bunch of dead people. It gets presumed that mental illness had to be involved.

This thinking ignores reality.
I know this is a controversial statement to some, but it needs to be said. Not every mental illness is the same. They manifest in different ways, cause different symptoms, and affect different things. Someone who is depressed might just have low energy, or reduced interest in daily activities. That person might not be depressed enough to require attention from professionals. Then again, it could just be the start of a downward slide.

This is the biggest problem with regards to mental health. It requires figuring out what’s going on in one of the least understood organs of the human body. Right now our best tools for dealing with mental health involve talking to patients. Scans can find physical problems, but problems with function have to get talked through. Diagnosing what’s wrong can be hard.

Even if someone has a mental health diagnosis, it doesn’t mean the illness is in control of every part of the person. Nobody blames grocery shopping on bipolar disorders, or artistic expression on schizophrenia. Likewise, just because a person has a mental health diagnosis, it doesn’t mean that diagnosis affects terrible behavior.

Despite that reality, it’s still easier to blame the mentally ill. Part of this is because it’s hard to dispel stereotypes. Another is because it’s terribly convenient to just blame something and move on, rather than look at how it works. One can call generally for action, even sugarcoat it as helping unfortunate people, and nobody really is going to speak up against it. Nobody wants to get talked about like they’re crazy.

Don’t believe me yet? Well, consider also that I’ve been writing about mental illness this entire time without even defining it. I’ve talked about some general disorders, but I haven’t given out the definition yet. That’s how easy it is to talk about something without even giving anyone a sense of what I’m actually talking about.

Here’s a good definition.
I linked to the American Psychiatric Association’s page because it also provided some statistics (current as of 2015). Nineteen percent of adult Americans experience mental illness, while about one in 24 Americans has a serious mental illness. In other words, pick 24 people you know. One of them might be getting treatment for a serious disorder.

They’re not going to tell you, though. They’re especially not going to tell you when you go on about the Parkland shooter and how his mental health problems were soo freaking obvious. They’re definitely not going to tell you if you start talking about anything that might get them locked up for no reason. It’s a sign that an honest discussion isn’t possible, and a cause for genuine concern.

Why this is important.
Mental illness isn’t the root of all tragedy in life. Some people suffer quietly, while others are coping with whatever ails them. It affects people uniquely. And it doesn’t always mean that a person is a danger to anyone.

Mentally ill people can and frequently do find ways to cope with their disorders and function in life. Blaming them for random stuff is like blaming the weather on sky wizards and rainbow unicorns. People are free to do it, just don’t be surprised if others look at you funny.

17 thoughts on “Blaming Mental Illness

  1. As a medic I was always compassionate to the mentally ill. Many were not, and acted as though it was a choice you could just “get over it” if you wanted to. It is a difficult problem that only seems to be taken seriously after a tragedy, and definitely can be hard to spot until it is obvious. Thanks

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  2. I hear what you’re saying but isn’t it reasonable to conclude based on a person’s past behavior whether or not their mental illness is affecting them in such a way as to do something terrible? Isn’t there a way to talk about this that doesn’t paint with such a broad brush? For example, the Parkland shooter: Yes, he has a mental illness BUT he also had other strong indications that said mental illness might spiral out of control. That’s certainly no saying everyone with mental illness will do such a thing. Clearly that isn’t the case, but isn’t it reasonable to ask who in their right mind would shoot 17 people? And isn’t it reasonable to study such a case to learn what to look for?

    I know you’ve said the 2nd amendment must go, but there are equally destructive, equally deadly things a person can do if they really want to cause destruction. Isn’t it worth looking into the signs of such a thing? It does seem to me that in many of these cases(not all) there had been signals that were either missed or dismissed.

    I had a very brief discussion with someone I didn’t even know on fb on Friday. I stated my opinion that pretending that everything as regards how firearms are obtained is just fine and that guns are dangerous and that some people shouldn’t have them is insane to me. That is, using the old adage that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

    Verbatim her response:
    “Guns are VERY dangerous in SOME hands…but the law abiding, stable minded citizens, who own them for protection, should not be punished for the crazy antics of the mentally unstable…armed security, be it retired military, retired police officers or vets, should be in every school across the country…”

    Then mine, because I think it’s very important to think about what is being suggested:

    “Who gets to determine who is stable minded and by what means? As it stands now court-ordered institutionalization is the only determining factor. Mentally unstable people are not going to check the mentally unstable box. The honor system isn’t working. As well, define law abiding citizens. Only convicted felons are barred from gun ownership.”

    See, it’s easy to say, “mentally unstable people shouldn’t be allowed to have guns.” It’s much harder to define what that actually means. As you said, it’s an easy catch-all. She, of course, had no response. My personal opinion is that many people who are gun fanatics are the very people who are too mentally unstable to be in possession of them.

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    • To your initial question, I’d say that it’s reasonable to look at past behavior. However, I think it’s a mistake to conclude that a mental illness diagnosis inherently has something to do with it. That’s kind of the problem here.

      Using Parkland as an example, he was a teenager diagnosed with depression who also had anger and impulse issues. The cops were called on him 30+ times, nothing which resulted in a felony conviction. As far as his behavior was concerned, only his social media posts indicated he specifically wanted to shoot up his school. But he’d been issuing so many other threats that they went unnoticed.

      We need facts about behavior more than we need feelings about behavior.


      • I totally agree with that. I also think we can’t just use the mental illness label, because as you said, each mental illness has it’s own symptoms. Not only that but the same mental illness affects different people in different ways, which, as you said makes it very difficult to even diagnose.

        I don’t know what specific form of depression he was diagnosed with, or even if it was the correct one because psychiatry is an evolution of sorts. Many people are misdiagnosed and then rediagnosed as behaviors and thought patterns emerge.

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      • Many things have multiple, or other original uses. Ask someone why they have a handgun? And personal protection is high in the list. People say trucks and fertilizer should be banned too, trying to prove a bad point. Trucks haul things and fertilizer grows food. They have original uses. No one calls an AR15 a protection rifle. It’s an assault rifle designed to do one thing. Kill. A lot!They need to go. Today I’m fine. I could go down and buy one and pass all the checks. But what happens tomorrow when my wife leaves me for another man or I have a mental health crisis of another nature? I’m sure my first instinct would be to take it back to the store?

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      • It’s funny you should say that because these gun fanatics do argue that a) an AR15 isn’t an assault rifle, nor is it an automatic rifle. It’s called an AR because it’s an Armalite Rifle and b) that it is absolutely for protection. They need to be able to use the same firepower as an imagined threat might use.

        Then I watched as someone else argued that since an AR-15 is a semi-automatic, same as any other semi-automatic, that the deputy in Parkland did have the same firepower as the shooter. Each only fires on bullet at a time and only if the trigger is pulled.

        Now, to me those two arguments don’t jibe. Is a handgun the equivalent to an AR or not? You can’t have it both ways.

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  3. What concerns me most is the willingness to toss off the explanation ‘mental illness’ so that we can perpetuate our ‘fear culture’. To me, that’s the mental health issue here. If we wanted to be biologists, we’d go to university, take the prescribed course and become one but we won’t spend the time, when we now have the resources, to learn our own minds, moderate our emotions and become a more solution oriented society. Something frightens us ‘kill it!’ We advance and change in society, that’s why we’re still here. So, why now are we bound by fear?

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  4. I just want to add one thing here SB. I believe every single person a sound mental health is in denial of the seriousness of the mental health and gun debate. Here’s why. Every single person to some serious degree has had a crisis in their life that has taken them down dark paths. From divorce to failures to finances. And even the privileged face their own human worth and discover thoughts and feelings they despise. Those things that pop up in life and challenge your very normative behavior and bang! Which way it goes depends a lot on physiological luck. Anyone that has not had those feeling of depravity is very rare, and common access to a killing machine helps perpetuate real tragedy.

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  5. Just read this on Gronda Morin’s blog — it’s a comment made by Charles Blow, political commentator. Makes sense to me …

    First, we must repeal the N.R.A.-backed Dickey Amendment, named for the man who sponsored it, former Representative Jay Dickey, an Arkansas Republican. It reads: “None of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”


  6. Thoughtful post! I am not closely connected as I am not entirely familiar around the legality here, but really, this is trivialization of mental illness. It is a serious issue – and horribly misunderstood.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: Blaming Mental Illness — Amusing Nonsense – Mind and Body

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