Stigma and the Associations between Mental Illness and Violence in the Media
On February 12th, Amy Bishop walked into a meeting of the Biology department at The University of Alabama, where she had recently been denied tenure, and murdered three colleagues. On February 18th, Joseph Stack flew a stolen plane into a building that housed, among other workplaces, a number of FBI offices in Austin, Texas. He, too, killed several people. Both are tragic events. Both were acts committed by clearly violent individuals and are possibly related to emotional or psychological problems. While Bishop had a history of violence, most notably the likely murder of her own brother, Stack had never, according to friends, exhibited violent behavior, though he did leave behind a fair amount of angry, somewhat rambling communications on his Facebook page. The purpose of my mentioning these events is not to explicate the reasons for which this man and woman committed these crimes, nor to summarize the events themselves, but rather to suggest a trend in the manner in which these events, as examples of other violent crimes, were framed in the moments and days following by news sources. The discourse surrounding both of these events was of two “crazed,” “unstable” and ultimately frightening individuals. Because their behavior was seemingly irrational, terrifying and unexplainable through traditional explanations of deviant behavior, the discussion immediately became one about illness. Think of Thomas Szasz’s classic notion of residual deviance – deviance that cannot be otherwise explained is generally lumped into the category of mental illness. But what does this kind of lumping do to people who have been diagnosed with a mental illness? Labeling theory suggests that the connections we make between mental illness and violence have some quite detrimental and troubling consequences, the most basic of which is stigma.
Further, in the same month as these two crimes occurred, two Hollywood films, “Shutter Island” and “The Crazies” were released. Both films, especially the latter, portray “crazy” people and associated violent behavior – both the grossly innacurate description of illness as well as the association to violence are problematic. Otto Wahl reminded us, back in the 90’s in his groundbreaking book, Media Madness, that what we see in the media, how mental illness is depicted in print news, advertisements, TV news and films profoundly affects the way in which Americans see mental illness as something to be feared and even as inevitably tied to violence. Wahl suggests that movies like “Psycho” and advertisements for so-called “schizophrenic” lawn mowers shape the way we see people with mental illness and lead us to stigmatize them as violent, unpredictable and bad. In fact, as many studies have shown, there is approximately the same rate of violence in the mentally ill population as there is in the non-ill population. In other words, having a mental illness does not make an individual more prone to violent acts – it does, however, seem to draw an audience to the theaters or to CNN’s day-long coverage of the events described in the first paragraph. Experts were called in to assess the mental status of Bishop and Stack before we even had all the details of the events. And, if indeed either of these individuals had suffered from any type of mental illness, which we are sure to hear about in the near future, it will very likely take the blame for their violent behavior. Unfortunately, this makes it more likely that anyone else with said illness (whether it be depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia) will suffer the consequences of this particular way of seeing the given illness.
In sum, the combination of the discourse surrounding individuals who commit violent acts as well as the fictional depictions of “craziness” make for a dangerous combination when it comes to the stigmatizing of people who have mental illnesses – particularly those that involve psychosis, namely delusions and/or hallucinations. People with Schizophrenia, for instance, because they are presumed to have violent tendencies are discriminated against for housing, jobs, etc. Much of the assumption of violent tendencies is not only untrue but comes with dangerous consequences. It also represents a misunderstanding of the etiology of violent acts, such as those undertaken by Bishop and Stack. In other words, whether or not either of these individuals was mentally ill is not the point of these incidents – violence is the point here, violence which may or may not also involve the presence of an illness. The point really is about how quick we are to assume the presence of illness when there is violence and this not only presents a problem for negative, albeit inaccurate assumptions about others with mental illness, but also often takes the personal responsibility away from criminals – violent acts become a result of illness rather than violent tendencies or general sociopathy. Certainly the social structure influences and even propels crime, and so do individual people – whereas mental illness really rarely does.