Monday, July 23, 2012

Speculation Around the Batman Shooting Increasing Stigma Against Mental Illness

There are many news stories speculating that James Holmes, the 24 year old that opened fire during the midnight showing of the new Batman: Dark Night Rises movie in Aurora, Colorado last Friday, has a mental illness. This is all speculation since no doctor of his has said he has a mental illness and he has not entered a plea stating that he has one. It has been all over my Facebook page of friends saying he has a mental illness and people commenting that he "looks crazy" in the photos from his initial court appearance today.

I am deeply saddened by the extreme violence in our society that keeps happening over and over again. I feel for the families of the 12 who died and the over 50 people wounded. I can't believe that this happens and it makes me scared that it seems like no place is safe anymore.

At the same time, I am also appalled by how almost every time a violent act is committed, particularly by a Caucasian, people start diagnosing mental illness. There are news reporters, Psychologists who report for the media that it likely someone has a mental illness even though they are not the person's doctor, and the random public who all say this. All over Facebook I see people claiming Mr. Holmes had a "psychotic break," he "must be schizophrenic," he just "looks crazy," and "people typically have their first episode of schizophrenia in their 20's and he is 24 so that's what he must have."

Every time our society blames violence on mental illness, we promote the hysteria, stigma, and fear of mental illness. I was shocked to find out that the National Alliance on Mental Illness was asked by the news media what the warning signs are for someone like Mr. Holmes. NAMI created a great response, stating that incidents of violent crimes are very low in people with mental illness and no one should be diagnosing Mr. Holmes unless they are his doctor. I wish they would have also challenged the public media to not slap the label of mental illness on people who do violent things as that perpetuates the stigma against people with mental illness.

I am also so tired of people claiming that these violent people "look crazy," meaning they have a mental illness. This is just offensive. Technically, by our society's standards, I am "crazy," and I don't really think I look like Mr. Holmes.  I even see this coming from people of my own faith tradition, Unitarian Universalism, a faith who has fought so hard to end stereotypes. No one in our faith would tolerate someone saying a person "looks gay" yet stating someone "looks crazy" goes largely unnoticed and is even encouraged.

I believe that our society jumps to the mental illness label because evil is scary for us. Most people are not quite sure what makes someone do evil things and they sure as heck want to make sure they personally cannot ever be seen as evil. So, they blame an illness, which they don't have, as a way to distance themselves from the situation. As if they are saying "only mentally ill people do evil things, so that means I can never do anything evil." Really though, as stated in the NAMI response, the "U.S. Surgeon General has reported that 'the overall contribution of mental disorders to the total level of violence in society is exceptionally small.'"

But can I ask the general public: "If you want to distance yourself from evil, how do you think it makes people with mental illness feel when you claim someone who committed a violent act must have mental illness?" You are perpetuating the myth that we are inherently evil. You are telling us we are bad and have the potential to do something evil just because we have an illness. Do you know how scary that is for us? Ever since I was a small child I knew of this stigma, and I always wondered if I was evil and didn't know it. That is a horrific, soul crushing, scary, and devastating thought to carry around with you. How do you think the current six year old with bipolar feels then they hear the shooter "must have had mental illness." How do you think the children of people with mental illness feel knowing that society shuns and fears their parent?

Whether or not it comes out that Mr. Holmes does have mental illness, we have not handled this well. We have vilified people of a certain group, and that is not acceptable. Even if he does have mental illness, that does not explain why he committed an evil act because there are thousands more like him who don't have a mental illness and do the same thing.

I would ask that the next time something like this happens, we do not jump to label someone as "other" so that we feel less threatened. We do this all the time, such as when we have labeled people who commit violent crimes as "terrorist" if they happen to be Muslim, or the assumptions that spread when the person is African American, Asian, or Latino/a. It's not alright to increase stigma and oppression for any group of people just so we can pretend like these events have nothing to do with our society as a whole, and instead we have some group to "make pay" or "blame" for the evil.


Rev. Katie