Crazy Does Not Equal Violent

by Shaker DesertRose

[Trigger warning.]

(Part One of the series "Crazy Does Not Equal...")

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, sexually assaulted, 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 stronger 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 issues of self-harm 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, and I don't give a damn, because it's not the point. The point is that 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 belief from every corner of the culture that perpetuates the idea that women's bodies are public property and/or financial commodities.

Even if he were mentally ill, his misogyny is what drove him to shoot those women in that health club, not any mental condition, the millions of other sufferers of which don't go out and target women with deadly violence.

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 less (or 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 (though I'm okay at the moment); 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 then the stigma piles onto the suffering. 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 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.

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