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Why Equating Violence With Mental Illness Is Problematic


Having grown up on the border of California and Nevada, the recent shooting in Vegas hits close to home. My friends and family can fly to the city in less than an hour to enjoy concerts, luxury hotels and the Las Vegas strip. My Monday morning was spent making sure friends and family were not victims of the recent mass shooting. Shocked by the violence, I, like many others, have been anxiously consuming news about the tragedy. Among calls for gun reform and unity, there exists a underlying discussion of psychiatric meds, psychiatric disorders and mental illness.

When we have a mass shooting in the U.S. that attracts media attention, mental illness is often brought to the forefront of the discussion. Violence prompts people to discuss mental health reform (which I agree we most definitely need), but such discussions often end up stigmatizing people with mental illness and psychiatric disorders. Mental illness has long been associated with violence despite numerous studies indicating that people with these illnesses are no more likely to be violent than a neurotypical person. The stigma can then create a populace that is wary of individuals with mental illness because they fear the unknown and believe anyone on psychiatric medication is unpredictable.

This leaves those of us struggling with mental illness wary of self-disclosure. Nobody wants to face discrimination or obstacles because of something they cannot control. My depression, ADHD, anxiety and mental health struggles are not the result of anything I did wrong. In fact, I have done everything in my power to get help and learn to manage my mental health. I am introspective and self-aware and probably am more capable of dealing with stress than someone who has never been through therapy or treatment. So, seeing the media blame mental illness for violence irks me and makes me anxious to talk about my own struggles.

I want people to know me, and part of knowing me is understanding the struggles and obstacles that have made me who I am. Overcoming depression, an eating disorder and learning to manage my ADHD and anxiety have shaped me. I am empathetic, honest to a fault and make an excellent friend. I have traits that make me a great employee, even when I struggle to manage my time or organize my paperwork. I am self-aware, I practice self-care to manage my stress and anxiety and I work at bettering myself every day. More importantly though, I know when I need to reach out for help and I know how to ask for help. This makes me more stable and less unpredictable than the media would like you to think.

Medication is often pinpointed as evidence that a violent person was mentally ill. Every medicine I currently take for ADHD and depression related to my ADHD has been blamed by media for causing mass violence. Rather than look at the situation as a whole, many people often prefer to say that mental illness is the cause of violent crime. I think blaming a diagnosis is far easier than trying to understand the social and structural problems that plague American society. Mental illness is a global phenomenon, but when compared to other prosperous countries, the United States has a higher incidence of violent crime. Mental illness is not a predictive risk factor for violent crime.

The association made between violence and neurodivergence can impact the health and well-being of individuals who have psychiatric disorders. Parents might be hesitant to allow children to be put on life-changing medication and this may affect the social development of the child. While adults may see medications aimed at treating depression and anxiety as mind-altering substances that will alter their personality. The stigma associated with disorders and medication might discourage someone from seeking accommodations which could make them better employees. Self-disclosure or fear of disclosing diagnoses may result in isolation or feeling hopeless and suicidal.

Whenever I hear someone associate mental illness with violence I get a surge of anxiety. I fear being outed because as a person with ADHD, I have faced disability related discrimination. I have put my education and job at risk because I worry about the consequences of disclosure. I also worry about the consequences of not disclosing when my disorder affects the quality or consistency of my work. I am forced to worry not just about the obstacles caused by my disorder, but also the obstacles that may come as a result of others knowing about it. I worry everyday that my history of ADHD and depression will make me ineligible to work in the career of my choice. When my disorder is deemed synonymous with violence despite evidence to the contrary, I am disheartened and fearful about my future.

Please, be careful with your assumptions and check sources before blindly accepting something as fact. Obstacles faced by people with psychiatric disorders shouldn’t be made worse by ignorance. Educating others helps reduce stigma, and I hope that by sharing my experience I can make life for other people struggling with mental illness a little bit better.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “HOME” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

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Thinkstock photo via Images_By_Kenny