By Stephen A. Kichuk, Op-Ed Contributor
The recent tragedy at Sandy Hook has served to rocket the issue of mental health into the forefront of public consciousness.
While debates rage over the causes of this event, many have asserted that it was “mental illness” that spurred such violence. Many further asserted
that it is mental illness that is at the root of much violence in society at large, and that it needs to be addressed on a wide scale.
While it is encouraging that many may be taking mental health matters more seriously, and that more attention may be put into mental healthcare, it is concerning that these assertions are rooted in misperception, and will quite possibly have the effect of increasing the burden of stigma. This can in turn affect outcomes of those suffering from mental illness
The American Psychiatric Association officially recognizes several hundred mental disorders (“mental illnesses”). A problem though, with
terms like “mental disorder” or “mental illness” is that they are inherently vague terms that, in themselves, mean little. The common
use of such vague terms, with the hundreds of diagnoses possible, fails to offer anything towards the understanding of specific situations. It also has the effect of lumping every person with any of those conditions together, no matter how disparate those conditions may be. This can be far-reaching in its effects, providing fertile ground for misperception and stigma.
Researchers have concluded that public fears regarding mental illness are out of proportion to reality. While there are many factors to
consider, and their relationships complex, research indicates that factors that prompt a person with mental illness to violence are
similar to those that prompt someone without mental illness to violence. Simply put, the presence of a mental illness in an offender
doesn’t mean that illness had anything to do with any violent acts committed. Even further, research has found that those with mental
illness are more likely to be victims of violence, rather than perpetrators.
This research has demonstrated that the frequent media portrayals and commonplace claims of mental illness as a leading cause of violence are simply not accurate. Out of the hundreds of mental disorders, there are only a few that are reliably linked to violence. It is important though, that if there are violent acts committed by someone with one of these conditions, then any discussion should use the specific name of the condition, rather then using the blanket term of “mental illness.” Using a blanket term makes inaccurate associations between those few conditions that are reliably linked to
violence with those many that aren’t, transferring the effects of stigma.
Additionally, any use of specific terms should be grounded in an understanding of those terms. Suggestions that the perpetrator of the
Sandy Hook incident had Asperger’s disorder, and that this was a causal factor in such violence, clearly demonstrate a lack of understanding, as violence is not inherent to Asperger’s.
While acts are committed which cause many to conclude the perpetrator ”wasn’t right in the head,” that doesn’t mean it was a mental illness
that was the cause, or even that it was present. Mental illnesses are specifically defined constructs, and labeling something as “mental illness,” without a solid grasp of those constructs, distorts public perception. Perhaps at least partially as a result, the term “mental illness” appears linked to public perceptions of dangerousness, and must be addressed, as it has important social effects. It matters how these discussions are framed. Unfortunately, much of the talk presently going on in the wake of the Sandy Hook incident may further embed misperceptions of mental illness and violence into the collective conscious.
While calls for greater emphasis on mental healthcare are welcome and long overdue, couching those calls in the horror of that awful event stands a strong chance of deepening many of the problems facing good people who happen to be suffering from mental health problems, and those people seeking to help them.
Stephen A. Kichuk is a graduate student and researcher in the mental health field.