I’m hoping to write more about this in the coming days, but this article in Slate is a good look at the connection between mental illness and crime — that is, that people with mental illnesses are much more likely to be the victims of crime than the perpetrators, and our culture so thoroughly ties mental illness to criminality that we have created an environment of intellectual laziness when it comes to looking at the actual causes of crime.
Shortly after Jared Lee Loughner had been identified as the alleged shooter of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, online sleuths turned up pages of rambling text and videos he had created. A wave of amateur diagnoses soon followed, most of which concluded that Loughner was not so much a political extremist as a man suffering from “paranoid schizophrenia.”
For many, the investigation will stop there. No need to explore personal motives, out-of-control grievances or distorted political anger. The mere mention of mental illness is explanation enough. This presumed link between psychiatric disorders and violence has become so entrenched in the public consciousness that the entire weight of the medical evidence is unable to shift it. Severe mental illness, on its own, is not an explanation for violence, but don’t expect to hear that from the media in the coming weeks.
Certainly, some people with mental illnesses do commit crimes — but that shouldn’t really surprise us, since people with mental illnesses are people, and some people commit crimes. I’m worried, though, that “he’s crazy” will end up being the easy card to pull in the particular case of the Arizona shooting, without recognizing that, mentally ill or not, Jared Loughner participated in the same society as the rest of us, and was undoubtedly influenced by the culture in which he lived — mental illness does not typically put one on an island all their own, totally unswayed and oblivious to everything around. We need to take a good look at the culture and sub-cultures we’ve built in the United States; “he’s crazy” is a cop-out, and it’s irresponsible, and it doesn’t alleviate us of our responsibilities.
Part of taking a good look at our culture is looking at how we treat those we’ve deemed insane or unstable or ill. It’s looking at how we don’t provide resources for all the people who need them, across the wide spectrum of mental and physical illness. It’s looking at how a punitive criminal justice system punishes the mentally ill. It’s looking at how a soundbite-driven media demonizes the mentally ill.
Pima County Sheriff Dupnik was on-point yesterday when he said that Arizona has become “a mecca for prejudice and bigotry.” But while we’re challenging the racist, anti-immigrant, pro-gun, anti-health-care, violent rhetoric that has come out of that state (and so many others), it’s also worth challenging the rhetoric and the assumptions we use when discussing mental illness, and especially the tenuous connection between mental illness and crime.
I’m hesitant to write about this topic on Feministe, since whenever mental illness is brought up we get a slew of ignorant and often hateful comments. So I’m putting this whole post on moderation, and will be deleting comments that demonize the mentally ill, or are bigoted towards people with mental illnesses. Because everything is being moderated, it may take a while for your comments to be approved. Thanks for your patience.
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