Violence And Mental Health
When I think about the “obviously” mad people of the world, I can’t help but make a limited comparison to Middle Eastern folk living in the western world. When people encounter the obviously mad, don’t they think for a brief moment that they might be dangerous? Don’t we perhaps fear that they will rape our mother, stab our brother or shoot someone famous as they’re walking into the lobby of their penthouse? Do they hear a voice from their god telling them to do it? They may even think there will salvation for them come judgment day, if they do away with the sinful. Have you ever heard “the terrorists” referred to as crazy?
I’m not attempting with this post to write anything factual or to suggest solutions. In fact, I have more questions than answers, along with my own experiences, biases and opinions on the subject of madness. The fact that I tip toward madness myself does not make me an expert on it but neither does it preclude me from my own prejudices and assumptions about madness in general and the criminally ill, in particular, which is what this post is sort of about.
When I think about the Virginia Tech shooting, which is often, I hurt. Firstly, and it goes without saying, there is the tragedy of thirty or so lives being taken in one fell swoop by an obviously crazed killer. Then there is the matter of the shooter himself. Am I allowed to feel empathy for him even if I could muster it? It is very, very hard for me to do so. When I encounter a lonely, alienated, angry individual I can’t help but think that they might be capable of an act of violence of one scale or another. For the most part, I dismiss this quickly and I try to allow what is good and humane in me to disallow such negative and stereotypical fears.
There are exceptions where there are no predictors. Just as they exist among the general population. The cases where the mentally ill have committed horrible crimes are always the subject of media scrutiny. Not just the news itself but follow-up news of all sorts, interviews with experts, biographies of the people who committed the crimes and their families and the grieving of the families of murdered love ones.
The cases that come immediately to mind are the Andrea Yates case (postpartum depression and psychosis) who drowned her five children and Seung Hui Cho (anxiety disorder and depression), the man responsible for the Virginia Tech Massacre where 32 people were killed and 20 others injured and where the shooter took his own life.
In these cases, the mentally ill commit heinous crimes to which connections to their illness can be made. Am I crazy (pardon the irony) in feeling strongly that the mental illness in and of itself is perhaps not the entire reason for the violence of people like Yates and Cho?
The conditions which increase the risk of violence are the same whether a person has a mental illness or not. Throughout our society, alcohol and drug use are the prime contributors to violent behaviour.
Another important factor is a violent background. Individuals suffering from psychosis or neurological impairment who live in a stressful, unpredictable environment with little family or community support may be at increased risk for violent behaviour. The risk for family violence is related to, among other factors, low socioeconomic status, social stress, social isolation, poor self esteem and personality problems. (Canadian Mental Health Association)