How the Toronto Attack Made Me Realize My Own Mental Health Stigma
The world is now learning the names of the 10 people killed, 14 injured on April 23, 2018, in the heart of Toronto — one of Canada’s most diverse cities. The impact of such a tragedy is being felt around my country. These things are not the norm for us Canadians. We don’t have experience with this level of sadness and loss — not when it was intentional, callous and with discriminatory intent.
Our instinct is to try to make sense of what can’t be rationalized. Our instinct is to point a finger and provide an explanation that fits what we are comfortable with because the alternative is a world that is chaotic and frightening. It’s a world where the unimaginable can happen, at any time and in any place, to anyone.
Public response was immediate. Conclusions had been drawn before law enforcement could conduct a thorough investigation, and the preliminary assumptions were formulated around two theories that are predominant in our rationalizations of violence: terrorism or mental instability.
Nuanced assessments — even by seasoned professionals — about the perpetrator of any mass casualty event cause damage to the mental health community. When they immediately assume the crime was motivated by a person who was mentally ill, they spark a discussion. They tout past record of instability, inability to connect with others, past history of mental breakdowns, history of medications and history of violence — all in an effort to lend credibility to the theory that mental health was the mitigating factor behind a senseless tragedy. And in that context, the attempt to thwart the stigma of mental health issues in our Western culture takes a giant leap backward.
In the aftermath of such tragic events, anyone taking psychiatric medication is viewed with suspicion and fear. Anyone brave enough to own their anxiety or depression is judged as if to suggest they are seeking attention or being lazy. The ones who live with debilitating mental illnesses such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder are deemed unsafe for society. Anyone hospitalized is stigmatized as “crazy” or “nuts.” The correlation between uncontrollable mental health disorders and violence is no longer up for debate; it is now a concrete reality in the editorializing of steadfast pundits. And every time another occurrence of violence disrupts our civilized society, the same arguments are touted over and over again until that mantra is cemented into the minds of our culture.
I spent the better part of my weekend on Twitter in a heated debate on an unrelated topic. And even when the discussion broke down into insults and abusive assaults on my character, the reason mental health is still so stigmatized was staring me right in the face. We use harsh and sometimes prejudicial remarks about someone’s mental state when attempting to disparage them. Even though I attempted to remain above the fray and refrain from using insults and cursing to establish my narrative, I did at one point say “Are you off your meds?” It didn’t strike me as wrong until a day later when I watched as users on Twitter did the same thing when debating the motivation behind a young man driving a white rental van down a sidewalk filled with pedestrians. It was horrifying for multiple reasons, not the least of which was a reopening of further prejudice against anyone and everyone who has ever struggled with mild, emotional distress to a full-blown psychotic breakdown. And I propagated the stigma. I contributed to the ignorance.
Stigma and fear don’t need a propellant in order to enact their wounds. We need to begin reassessing how our culture examines tragedy without immediately casting dispersions toward an entire group of people. And mental health does not discriminate. It affects all ages, races, genders and professions. It begins by making a conscious effort to understand all of the motivations behind premeditated violence, whether it be mass shootings, attacks using motor vehicles or bombings. When mental health is instantly attributed to the accused, all discussion shuts down and the truth matters little.
When these events take place in our communities and our nations, we can begin by having discussions among the people around us; families, friends, co-workers and neighbors. We need to ask ourselves if these kinds of generalizations make us sad, for more then the reasons apparent. Do the accusations thrown around so mindlessly make us stop to think? Do the discussions around mental health make us feel like we need to hide the daily struggles each of us face? Is mental health the underlying mitigating factor to senseless violence, or is there something we’re missing?
Mental health issues do not correlate to violent acts. Millions live with mental disorders on a daily basis and they don’t resort to committing mass murder. So, we as a society need to do something. We need to change the conversation. We need to change the beliefs. And if we are successful, the stigma can end.
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Photo by Antony Xia on Unsplash