Image: Flickr/JohnMcStravick

Image: Flickr/JohnMcStravick

Headline reads, “Attorney: Mental Health Could Factor in Dog Killings.”  The story is out of Reno, Nevada.  The man dismembered six—count them—six dogs.  “Mental Illness Cases Swamp Criminal Justice System,” the USA Today headline reads, describing a 2006 Justice Department study.  When a person diagnosed with mental illness commits a crime, it’s news. But when thousands of non-diagnosed people commit crimes, it’s not.

I get it: a diagnosis lets everyone without a diagnosis “explain” violent crimes – lets them blame these actions on people who are unlike themselves, dangerous “mentally ill” people who should be incarcerated. And of course instead of care (not cure, care) it’s easier to incarcerate folks (which usually makes them more, not less, mentally ill).

Why is it, I wonder, that only the people who commit mass murder  (more than 4 people in one rampage) in the U.S. are lumped in with “the mentally ill”?  Where are the domestic violence perpetrators? Or the common everyday maniacs who shoot down commercial airliners, blast each other to smithereens, lie in wait with pounds of plastic explosives strapped to their bodies? Who is served by withholding diagnostic labels from people—men (and women)—who beat or murder the people they say they love?  Or by leaving out those whose life work it is to exterminate a people, a race, a country?  Who does it help to distort the figures?

Not people who actually have a diagnosis ranging from everyday depression to the psychosis of grief or schizophrenia, I’ll tell you that. These people are lumped in with the violent mentally ill, layering stigma on top of what may already be challenge. The stigma of “the other” – of being included in a category that only includes the most perverse perpetrators – drives people in need of connection underground, isolating them even further.

In fact, the people I know with a mental health diagnosis are more likely to be victim than perpetrator. For example, the people I work with who provide services to people who escape intimate partner violence know their clients are called “victims” and “survivors” and the people they run from are called “perpetrators”—and the clients are often the ones who get a diagnosis.

Not the perpetrators, who are spoken of with contempt, scorn and fury but without diagnoses, labels that stigmatize and separate.  The perpetrator may go to work the next day as if nothing at all had happened, without a diagnosis, without the stigma, as if they had not just broken a child’s arm as he shielded his mother; as if they had not snapped a kitten’s neck in front of a little girl to show her what would happen if she talked to anyone about seeing her mom get beaten.

The terrible truth is that it is more common for people diagnosed with major mental illnesses to be vulnerable to assault and abuse than it is for these individuals to be prone to violence.  Sadly, we spend a lot of time taking in what the media tell us about mental illness instead of looking at the research.

For example, and I’ll say it again:  the research—solid research—indicates that at most 17 percent of violent crimes are committed by people diagnosed with mental illness.  That word “diagnosed” makes it easy to leave out the everyday maniac who belittles, berates, and beats his wife.  The parent who slams their child against the wall, and many others. And, again, researchers Charlotte and Harriet Childress, showed that 98 percent of the mass murderers were men between the ages of 23 and 40 who, contrary to the stereotype of being “mentally ill”, simply felt entitled to something they weren’t getting like women or attention.

Maybe violence isn’t the fault of the “the mentally ill.”  Maybe it’s the “frustrated entitled” who think they aren’t getting what they believe they deserve?  This could certainly include people with diagnoses, and it would umbrella the disgruntled religious, the bullied, the people wrestling with loss of privilege, those oppressed who snap—a much larger umbrella than the inaccurate “mentally ill.”

Unfortunately, if you say something loud enough and often enough, people start to believe without looking at the data.  We have been told that the “mentally ill” are responsible for the worst violent crimes so often and so loudly that we have come to believe it.

Due to this belief, a diagnosis of mental illness essentially means—for many—invisibility when it comes to opinion, believability, and place.  In fact, those diagnosed with mental illness are disallowed “normal” feelings of anger and rage – in a situation that evokes anger in “normal” people, the “mentally ill” are not allowed to feel this natural anger because something might happen.

Protesting doesn’t do much good either, because the well-meaning and frightened caretakers decide that a mentally ill person’s protests are a byproduct of the disease.  And getting upset must be an indication of being off one’s medication. Where is the right of a person diagnosed with mental illness to express natural, healthy anger? Where is their right to have this important emotion taken seriously? Is it any wonder the mentally ill snap a second time, sometimes more profoundly than the first?  The box in which they are kept is so very small…