In the past few weeks, three people with mental illness appeared in the media’s pictures of violence, which is no surprise given that the media and mental illness have a long history together. Ultimately, the media defines what mental illness looks like in the public’s mind. If one were to gauge by the past few weeks, it would seem that mental illness and violence go hand in hand. But does it?
Here’s the rundown of the past few weeks:
- On Sept. 16, Aaron Alexis enter a Washington, D.C. Navy shipyard and proceeded to kill 12 people and injury four more.
- On Oct. 3, Miriam Carey was killed by police after ramming into a gate at the White House and then leading them on a high-speed chase through Washington, D.C.
- On Oct. 4, John Constantino doused himself with gasoline and then set himself on fire while sitting on the Mall in Washington, D.C.
All of those events have mental illness in the news titles with violent images to accompany them. But people with mental illness are done a disservice by the media’s violent images.
From Victorian Asylums to The Shining
Media portrayal of people with mental illnesses as violent and scary is nothing new. From Victorian fears that caused massive warehousing of the mentally ill into psychiatric hospitals, or asylums, to Jack Nicholson’s admittedly brilliant turn as Jack Torrance in The Shining, media portrayal of the mentally ill has heavily influenced how we feel about those with mental illnesses.
In other words, the media portrays the mentally ill as dangerous people who maim and kill others. It is no wonder people fear the mentally ill.
The Hidden Truth Behind Violent Images of Mental Illness
The unfortunate truth is that some people with mental illnesses do become violent. The Adam Lanzas of the world have (or had, as the case may be) serious mental illnesses that are left untreated. The Navy shipyard shooter was known to be delusional. Miriam Carey did have a history of post-partum depression. John Constantino did struggle with a mental illness for most of his life.
But what is the truth? Does having a mental illness make you more likely to become violent? Yes? No? Maybe?
According to an article published by Time, people with schizophrenia “are roughly twice as likely to be violent as those who do not have the disorder.” The risk is even greater in those who also have a substance abuse problem. However, the article goes on to state that the majority of those with schizophrenia never become violent.
The University of Washington School of Social Work has published a fact sheet debunking the idea that mental illnesses and violence are linked. ThinkProgress questioned this so-called “link” after the Sandy Hook shootings in December, stating that between 92 and 96 percent of all people with mental illnesses do not have “violent tendencies,” and the mentally ill’s contribution to the overall crime rate is low.
One study takes this even further, and states that people with mental illnesses are more likely to be victims of crime, and not the perpetrator: “People with severe mental illnesses, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or psychosis, are 2 ½ times more likely to be attacked, raped or mugged than the general population (Hiday, et al.,1999).”
These reports must be heartening, because they seem to debunk the whole idea that people with mental illnesses are more violent. It is important to note, however, that researchers are still studying mental illnesses and the behavioral issues that may arise.