Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

The Arizona shootings and the mental illness-violence link

By Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton

Unusual behavior for me, but I found myself this weekend checking the web constantly for updates on Congresswoman Giffords. I would hold my breath, brace for the worst, pray for her recovery. Brain swelling and infection continue to be significant risk factors, but the latest report is that she is breathing on her own, and the fact that she's able to respond to auditory input and move her extremities is huge. I grieve for those who lost their lives, along with the rest of the nation, hoping this incident can remind us of the humanity that unites us and deserves respecting despite our political differences.

The smiling mugshot of Jared Loughner, meanwhile, has I'm sure sent chills down people's spine. The picture, and the reports of his increasingly erratic behavior over the past year, convince me that mental illness played a critical factor. It infuriates me both that states do not make it a priority to update the National Instant Criminal Background Check database with records of mental illness, and that Loughner did not receive the care he needed in time to prevent this tragedy. With so many people aware of the problem, including his friends and his teachers, diffusion of responsibility still won out and Loughner was left to manage for himself.

Obviously, he could not.

Don't defend the monster, I can hear people saying. I'm not. Loughner's actions are indefensible. But I do want to speak out against the "monster" label we are so quick to use in the aftermath of such horrific events. Why? Because such labels a) slow progress in efforts to combat mental illness stigma; b) reduce our willingness to put dollars behind mental health services and social services; and c) reduce the likelihood that those with mental illness will seek and stick with treatment.

Berkeley psychologist Stephen P. Hinshaw, in his excellent book The Mark of Shame, provides a very readable history of social perceptions about the mentally ill, and how those perceptions have allowed cruel and inhumane behavior masquerading as science and treatment. Cruel and inhumane behavior against fellow people, as with Abu Ghraib, is facilitated when we see members of outgroups (in this case, the mentally ill) as something less than human. In other words... as monsters. In this post, I note how zombies and aliens would be good against prejudice because they would highlight our common ingroup membership. But the somber aspect of this message is that when we think of others as belonging to a different category than us, we are all the more likely to feel justified in punishing them.

A brand new study led by my colleague Andy Martinez (Martinez, Piff, Mendoza-Denton, & Hinshaw, in press), which is about to come out in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, confirms that people are especially likely to deny humanity to people who suffer from mental illness. Using a nationwide sample, Martinez showed that merely labeling a person as suffering from a chronic mental illness led people to think of that person as more animalistic: without the capacity for reason, control, or compassion. Tellingly, what explained these attributions of animality was the sense of danger that the mere label of mental illness aroused in people.

But isn't this exactly what defines Loughner-- the lack of capacity for reason, control, or compassion? Perhaps-- but the unfairness lies in the assumption that all people who suffer from mental illness are dangerous. Being male, for example, is a greater risk factor for violence than mental illness, and you are more likely to be the victim-- rather than the perpetrator-- of violence if you suffer from mental illness.

In other words, the incidence of violence among the mentally ill is very low, but images of Loughner's mughsot overwhelm our senses. Events such as the Arizona or Virginia Tech shootings, coupled with media images that include Hannibal Lecter (Silence of the Lambs) and Arkham Ayslum (Batman) contribute to a grossly exaggerated perception that people with mental illness are violent. The automatic association of mental illness with violence, as Martinez shows, leads us to then dehumanize. And this, in turn, makes it less likely that people with mental illness will seek help, or be offered help, or stick with treatement.

As David Brooks notes here, this tragedy should put the spotlight on mental health policy and the provision of mental health services as a national priority.

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