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The Story About Mental Illness We Need the Media to Tell

Savagery is murdering innocent men and women, and that is what happened in Orlando. I am not American, but the killings impact me. My heart breaks for the families who lost a loved one that day and for the countless victims whose lives are scarred by the terror attack.

The attack also impacts me as a person who lives with a mental illness. When you receive a diagnosis, it can be both liberating and stigmatizing. A diagnosis can guide you to treatments that change your life, but it also is like a badge you wear. And for some people, the badge of mental illness creates judgment and fear.

Recently, Psych Central reviewed research conducted by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Health. The study reviewed news articles about mental health over a 20-year-period. They found nearly 40 percent of all news stories about mental illness report a person with mental illness committing violence towards other people. This translates into a belief that many people with mental illness are violent or potentially violent.

The reality is that most people who live with mental illnesses just want to get better and live their lives. They want to raise families and be at peace, but sometimes they can’t because of the war in their heads and in their emotions.

And they have to fight the stigma that believes if you have a mental illness, you are a killer. Initial reports stated that the Orlando attack was motivated by radicalization. Reports are beginning to cite his apparent mental illness here and here. What seems apparent is that there is no one cause. A key aspect was that the attack is against the LGBTQ community and his own feelings of stigma and hate were a motivating factor. The killer had mixed motives for his act and the coming weeks will likely involve an intense investigation, looking for his central motivations.

If he had a mental illness, it is doubtful that one factor would have motivated him to attack the nightclub. For most people who have a mental illness, their illness is internalizing (causing them to ruminate and look inwards too much) rather than externalizing (causing them to look outside and blame others). An imbalance does not equate to murder. My hope is that the conversations about mental illness can have more compassion. People with mental illness are not imbalanced and ready to explode.

“Most people with mental illness are not violent toward others and most violence is not caused by mental illness, but you would never know that by looking at media coverage of incidents” — Emma McGinty, PhD

The findings of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg research showed that:

  • The most frequent topic in the articles was violence, in 55% of the articles.
  • 38 percent mentioned violence occurring against others
  • 29 percent linked mental illness with suicide
  • 47 percent of the articles mentioned treatment
  • 14 percent of the time the treatment was successful and recovery occurred.

Stories of individuals and families getting the help they needed unfortunately rarely make the news. “Stories about successful treatment have the potential to decrease stigma and provide a counter-image to depictions of violence, but there are not that many of these types of narratives depicted in the news media,” Dr. McGinty said in the PsychCentral piece.

My point is mass terror attacks or mass murders are rarely motivated purely because of a mental illness. In reality, mental illness is rarely the reason for violence. The media’s search for reasons will inevitably find some mental illness because, for many of us, we will experience a mental illness in our lifetime.

But it won’t make you violent. A mental illness is not a violence-virus. It is a condition you live with, cope with and strive to overcome. It rarely leads to violence.

“Anyone who kills people is not mentally healthy. We can all agree on that,” McGinty says. “But it’s not necessarily true that they have a diagnosable illness. They may have anger or emotional issues, which can be clinically separate from a diagnosis of mental illness.”

According to Canadian Mental Health, 20 percent of Canadians will experience a mental illness in our lifetime. Does that mean that 20 percent of the population is ready to blow? Not at all. In fact, statistically, alcohol is a more likely culprit than mental illness. Alcohol is at least partially to blame for:

  • 86 percent of homicides
  • 75 percent of spousal violence
  • 66 percent of violence by intimates (family, boyfriend/girlfriend)
  • 60 percent of sexual offenses
  • 37 percent of assaults
  • 31 percent of stranger violence
  • 13 percent of child abuse

Of course, I don’t know whether the shooter was drunk or high. My point is most individuals who murder have mixed motives and if we look hard enough, we may be able to find mental illness in there somewhere. But that doesn’t mean it’s the cause. For certain he was imbalanced, full of hate, apparently radicalized and committed to violence.

The real story here is that 49 people are dead and 53 are living through searing pain and tragedy. We know that statistically, many of these individuals were, and are, living with mental illness. And their stories are stories of treatment, relationships and overcoming layer after layer of stigma. For those who had experienced some form of mental illness, it led not to violence but to dancing, connection and a desire to enjoy themselves.

I hope that in coming months, we hear the stories of the survivors. How they cope, recover, and triumph — that is the real story that needs to be told.

Keep it Real.

This post was previously published on The Good Men Project

The Mighty is asking the following: Tell us a story about a time you encountered a commonly held misconception about your disability, disease, or mental illness. How did you react, and what do you want to tell people who hold this misconception? Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.