Mad Pride Movement Part II

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.

I read this in an article from the Canadian Mental Health Association:

Recent studies have showed that alcohol and substance abuse far outweigh mental illness in contributing to violence. A 1996 Health Canada review of scientific articles found that the strongest predictor of violence and criminal behavior is not major mental illness, but past history of violence and criminality.

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)

There are so many variables that can interact with a mental illness. The environment in which a person grows up, various forms of trauma, society’s reactions to the person, and in the case of Andrea Yates, physical and psychological exhaustion from having too many children, too close together, among other factors that have been explored regarding her troubled life.

To say that an individual with mental illness acts violently due exclusively to that illness, is like trying to determine one specific cause of death in a person who is killed in an automobile crash. (Please, readers, if you feel this is a bogus analogy, please do let me know through comments.)

So what do we do about the stigma that surrounds mental illness and which contributes to the social view that a person who has it may be the next Andrea Yates or Seung-Hui Cho?

As a woman who has dealt with depression all her life and who is the mother of a daughter with bipolar illness, it is my strong belief that we must be open about it, whenever possible. As the Mad Pride movement suggests, we must tell people in an attempt to illustrate – see, I am a contributing member of society, I am a good-enough mother, I am, even, a peacenik. If enough people saw that mental illness is not a prescription for disaster, I think social attitudes would begin to change.

The Mad Pride movement offers much to people in the way of coming together to be seen and heard but we must do it as individuals as well. It is no easy task. Since many people continue to see individuals through the lens of their label only, the labeled worry that their job performances, for instance, will be evaluated more through the lens of the disability than people who are not obviously mad. Even personality characteristics and quirks are often blamed on the mental illness, as apposed to “that’s just how she is”. This is frustrating and difficult because everyone gets sad or angry or frustrated but when one has a mental illness, one is subject to those assumptions. Even the mad individual can question him/herself, as I often have. Am I this way or that way because I am depressed or would I be this way regardless?

The degree to which one opens up is an individual thing. I have told many people that I’m a depressive (just what I call it) but rarely do I discuss the nuances of my situation with the non-depressed. I allow it to suffice that I tell someone I’m a depressive; just as I may tell also tell them that I am divorced, without getting into the reasons why my marriage didn’t work. Whether it’s depression or divorce, I don’t go around announcing hello, I’m divorced, hello, I’m depressed. It’s only brought up if it fits the context of the conversation. In that sense I tend to be private about my depression but I will not be entirely silent.

I’m not suggesting that the stigma of mental illness will be lifted anytime soon simply due to people coming out about being mad. It’s only one small step toward a broader social perspective on madness. I know that I feel much more confident about coming out as a depressive or discussing my daughter’s bipolar madness than I would have ten years ago.


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