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Casually linking mental illness with violence does a disservice to vast majority of people with a mental disorder

Tim Burkett
M. Tim Burkett

Mentally ill. Unstable. Unbalanced. Crazy. All of these terms have been used to describe Jared Loughner, who is accused in the Arizona shooting that left six people dead and 14 wounded, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who remains in critical condition at a Tucson hospital. Our nation has been united in condemning this senseless violence. House Speaker John Boehner truly spoke for all Americans when he characterized the rampage as an “attack on all who serve … a sad day for our country.”

Our hearts go out to the Arizona victims and their loved ones. In addition to those directly harmed, there are other, not-so-visible victims: the community of people who are mentally ill. As the CEO of the Twin Cities’ largest nonprofit organization serving people with mental illness, I believe that when we casually link mental illness with violence, we do a disservice to the vast majority of those who suffer from a mental disorder.

Most people with mental illness are not violent men who open fire with semiautomatic guns; they are the church secretary who manages her depression with medication; the fidgety kid with ADHD, the teenager hospitalized with anorexia nervosa, the peaceful young woman who bags groceries and has been diagnosed with schizophrenia; the soldier whose post-traumatic stress disorder strains his marriage and causes nightmares. These faces are more representative of mental illness than that of the accused shooter in Arizona.

People who commit crimes and who do not understand the difference between right and wrong are not merely mentally ill — they are psychopaths. There is a big difference between the two.

Does having mental illness predispose someone to violence? The most current research suggests this is not the case. Yet every time a violent act and the phrase “mental illness” or “mentally ill” are mentioned in the same breath, there’s an implication that people with mental illness are more likely than others to commit violent acts. Yes, there are some mentally ill people who are, have been, or will be violent. But the majority of people with mental illness simply are not violent.

Society has moved toward acceptance
Our society, as a whole, has moved toward more acceptance of mental illness. It has become easier for those who need help to ask for it. Many people with mental illness function at a high level, because they were able to ask for and receive the help they needed. But will people with mental illness continue to take the risk of stepping forward to ask for help if they see mentally ill people portrayed as violent criminals?

In coming to terms with this unspeakable tragedy, we all want to understand what happened and why. It’s easy to say that someone is so ill that their delusions lead them to become violent. If we suspect that is the case, however, let’s use the right words to describe it: Someone who commits a crime like the Arizona massacre is a violent criminal. He or she may even be diagnosed as having psychopathic tendencies. But let’s not stigmatize people with mental illness by linking them with violent acts. It hurts people with mental illness, and it hurts our society as a whole.

M. Tim Burkett, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and CEO of People Incorporated, a nonprofit agency that serves mentally ill people throughout the Twin Cities with more than 40 programs. He also has mental illness in his family.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by myles spicer on 01/14/2011 - 12:03 pm.

    I agree with most everything Burkett says, and certainly not all people with mental illnesses are violent. They deserve our help and patience.

    I do disagree with the description of the acts as those of merely a “violent criminal”. The action was more than that. Despite contentions to the contrary — this appears to be a POLITICAL ASSASSINATION. The rage appears not to be generalized — but targeted at a specific member of congress with whom there was clear disagreement. Thus, there can be cases of people who are mentally ill…violent criminals…AND have a political agenda. Therein lies the rub.

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