(SNN) - Today is April 4, 2014 and various news sources have sensationalized the following incident, and others like it, so many times that it’s already old news. On April 2, 2014, Army Spec. Ivan Lopez shot a number of people at Fort Hood, Texas, before fatally shooting himself. Three of his victims died, sixteen others were wounded. This is the second shooting incident at Fort Hood, the earlier one was an act of terrorism by a military psychiatrist.
Arguably, it could be said the psychiatrist shooter was mentally ill, certainly Lopez was. It is known that Lopez was being treated for depression, anxiety, and insomnia (classic symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress) at the time of his violent act, although he was in Iraq for only four months and did not see combat. Here is more information about PTS. Lopez had a heated altercation with other soldiers in his unit shortly before the shooting, and that is thought to possibly have been the inciting incident.
Before you jump to the conclusion that mentally ill people are more dangerous to themselves or others than non-mentally ill people, read this, and this. Lots of soldiers have PTS, depression, anxiety, and/or insomnia, and don’t shoot other people (outside of war). Lots of people are bullied as children, and even as adults, and do not go on shooting sprees. Lots of people lose their jobs and do not murder their ex-coworkers. Lots of people work for the postal service and do not shoot their fellow employees.
Mental illness is not a definitive predictor of violence, yet the public correlates the two when fed a steady diet of news, books, and movies that sensationalize random acts of violence by crazed perpetrators, and in consequence stigmatizes those with mental illness. Heather Stuart, in her paper “Violence and Mental Illness: An Overview” (World Psychiatry, v.2(2); Jun 2003, PMC1525086) says, “The public most fear violence that is random, senseless, and unpredictable and they associate this with mental illness. Indeed, they are more reassured to know that someone was stabbed to death in a robbery, than stabbed to death by a psychotic man…. (Yet,) ”…the prevalence of violence among those with a major mental disorder who did not abuse substances was indistinguishable from their non-substance abusing neighbourhood controls,” (according to “the most sophisticated study” done on the subject of mental illness as predictive of violence).
A far more valid predictor of violence is substance abuse and/or being male and young. However, it is this fear of random acts of violence and the association of this type of violence with mental illness that leads to the stigmatization of those with mental illness, and this stigmatizing of mental illness is, at least in part, why many with mental illnesses, especially non-psychotic illnesses, do not seek the help they need. My own nephew committed suicide because the stigma associated with depression kept him from getting the help he needed.
In addition, many non-psychotic mental illnesses (for example: depression, anxiety, and especially PTS) often have predictive causes, such as child abuse, child sexual abuse, rape, military sexual trauma, and facing the possibility of violent death (for example: being a victim in domestic abuse situations, being a victim of violent crime, and being in combat during wartime).
One wonders if mental illness is even an appropriate term for any condition that is a normal response to abnormal and traumatizing experiences.
Medical conditions and illnesses are no longer feared and stigmatized, for the most part, because we understand them. We understand that physical illness is not due to any moral failure on the part of the sufferer. Likewise, it is time we understand mental illnesses, many of which have physical or medical components, and let go of our irrational fears and prejudices. It is time we stop sensationalizing random acts of violence and automatically attributing them to mental illness, either overtly or by less direct means.
Award winning actress Glenn Close advocates for those with mental illnesses through her organization bringchange2mind.org (BC2M). I urge everyone reading this to educate themselves about mental illness. BC2M is a great place to start.
Maye Ralston writes stories, essays, and books. Also she writes opinion editorials and essays for The Sage and is a member of the Midwest Writers Workshop Planning Committee. She blogs at Writing Heartland.
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