Let me start by apologizing that this is not an emotional, touchy-feely post. Honestly, I can't process what happened at Newtown. I can't even imagine what the children and teachers must have gone through, or the feelings those who survived live with now, or the loss families and friends feel. I'm horrified that these peoples' lives--full of joys and sorrows and boredom and little victories just like ours--have been reduced to statistics in support of political hobbyhorses, from gun control laws to mental health research funding. I'm anxious and furious that through Adam Lanza, autism has been linked to mass murder, and a short-lived facebook group actually said if they got x number of likes, they would burn an autistic child alive to prevent future school shootings. The irony that they themselves would be murdering an innocent child...was apparently lost on them.
But honestly, you're probably as sick of reading about all of this as I am. So that's not what I'm talking about today.
A well-meaning post went around twitter saying, "Autism is not mental illness." This is true and needs to be said. But it implies something else--that we have to dissociate autism from mental illness, because mental illness means murder. Elise Ronan even suggested using testing to confirm with school authorities that your autistic children aren't mentally ill in order to prevent them from being seen as potential murderers (no suggestions on what to do for mentally ill autistic children, who are probably much more common*).
But most people with mental illness are not murderers.
The majority of people in my generation have experienced depression at some point in their short lives, usually during their teens. I am no exception. Depressed people are not murderers. If anything, researchers say they suffer from "internalizing disorders" because they stuff their anger inside or turn it against themselves.
OK, fine, you might say. Depression is so common that some debate whether its mildest manifestations should be considered a mental illness at all, or simply a reasonable response to grief and traumatic life events. But what about more serious mental illnesses? Ones that distort one's perceptions of reality, making one paranoid and interfering with one's ability to function in daily life or hold down a job?
I have friends and extended family with mental illness that goes far beyond garden-variety depression, anxiety, and panic disorder. Some are so emotionally unstable, irritable, and prone to fatigue that they cannot hold down a job at all, and live on financial support from significant others or on welfare. One of these has bipolar disorder that makes her periodically paranoid, suspicious of the motives of those closest to her. She knows her disorder makes her misperceive reality, and questions her perceptions, but her delusions still feel emotionally convincing. She feels insulted by compliments and cannot take them, because since they couldn't possibly be true, the person must be mocking her. I am no longer in touch with her because she takes offense at things not meant this way and cuts off contact for long periods of time. Another person I know had schizophrenia and spent his life in and out of mental institutions. Once brilliant, heavy drugs destroyed his mind and personality. While these people can be intensely difficult to get along with, they are not violent. They harm themselves, not others.
I have also known--though, not well--people with borderline personality disorder. You were either their best friend or their worst enemy. I once had a conversation with such a person, which consisted of them engaging in a monologue listing every nasty thing anyone had ever done to him (most of it likely imaginary or misinterpreted). Their children can end up emotionally scarred, because these people can be emotionally abusive. But they have never, would never, pull a weapon on someone or kill someone. Certainly, given their obsession with how others see them, they would never go to a public place and open fire. The particular individuals I know did not have good childhoods, and ended up with all the worst traits associated with the disorder (as one of my alert readers pointed out, not all people with borderline personality disorder are like this). But even these unusually hurtful people were not actually violent.
Were I familiar with the research on serious mental illness and violence, I could cite statistics for you. But if you have experience with people with mental illness, you probably have already come to the same conclusion: mentally ill people are not, generally speaking, murderers.
A lot of parents and autistic adults have rightly complained that linking autism with mental illness in media programs creates a stigma, a blood libel even, that leads others to abuse those with the label. This is all true, but this particular stigma is fairly recent. The association between mental illness and violence goes much deeper, goes back much farther, and is much less controversial.
I think there are two reasons many of us automatically associate mental illness with murder.
First, we cannot conceive of how anyone "in their right mind" would do such a thing. Something must be very different, very broken about someone before they could go into a school and start shooting children. They must be mentally ill!
Second, going back at least to Dostoevsky's day, there is a liberal strain in the culture that seeks to be lenient to criminals, not to judge them, and to see them as fundamentally good and possible to rehabilitate. The basic logic here goes something like this: social conditions are terribly wrong, and distort people's natures, essentially forcing them to murder people. The murderers had no choice in the matter; they simply acted this way because their social conditioning made them "sick." Because they are "sick," they can be "cured," which is much more humane than judging and condemning them. Because the locus of their disease is in the culture, rather than in their nature, we can prevent murder by changing the culture rather than by punishing the murderers. It feels good to have this attitude, because it feels a lot better to think that people are basically good and can be changed than to think that some people are just evil and will do terrible things no matter what. It feels good to have this attitude because we can then see ourselves as compassionate even towards criminals, which after all is quite difficult for most people to do. However, for better or worse, most of us are not only horrified and outraged by murder but convinced that killers have moral responsibility, so instead of feeling less judgmental towards criminals as intended, our target instead switches to mentally ill people.
I don't know the statistics (please weigh in if you do), but I would imagine mentally ill people are more likely than average to be the victim of a crime, and probably because of this stigma of violence.
In trying to be humane to people who have done the worst thing anyone can possibly do, we have turned some of the most vulnerable, and innocent, people in society into scapegoats.
It might seem nice to conceptualize murder and other "social ills" as "illness," but all it does (besides make us feel good about ourselves) is hurt people who actually are mentally ill, and are as good-hearted and nonviolent as anyone else.
By all means, we should keep spreading the word that autistics are not murderers. But it may be even more important to remind others that mentally ill people aren't, either.
*The majority of children and possibly adults with autism have anxiety or depression.