Reality Check: Mental Health, Violence and False Perceptions

In a world that is increasingly polarized by media outlets that are increasingly polarizing, it is a challenge to get non-biased, fact based instead of opinion based, reporting. On any given day, I listen to and read the news from a wide variety of media outlets – all in an attempt to piece together the facts for myself.

As a part of this cobbled together media buffet, there are certain times of the day when I will often listen to CNN in the car as I go about my day. I don’t fully agree with the viewpoints or reporting on CNN – much like I don’t think there is one single news source right now that I do fully agree with the viewpoints and reporting – but it is easy for me to access and at least gives me a starting point from which I can dig into stories and facts deeper on my own.

This past week though – I have been yelling at my radio as I drive. To be clear, it isn’t necessarily the reporting on CNN that has me yelling, I think I would be yelling in the same way no matter which media outlet was on my radio. What I am yelling at is the perpetuation of the false perception that mental illness = violence.

Today, as I drove home from the grocery store, I heard this story on CNN. A story that probably sought to help the world “know” more about the 19-year old Florida teenager who opened fire on his former classmates and teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL last week. It was a story based on both a televised and a print interview done with the parents of the family with whom he had been living. It was a story that included the following:

The couple told the Sun-Sentinel they knew Cruz was lonely, depressed and a bit odd, but saw no warning signs of a coming massacre.
“We had this monster living under our roof and we didn’t know,” Kimberly Snead told the Sun-Sentinel.
But James Snead told CNN on Monday they knew Cruz “was depressed.”
“He told us he was depressed,” Snead said.
Snead said Cruz was “just trying to fit in … didn’t know what to say, or when to say or how to say it.”
“So, he’d ask a lot of questions. He’d apologize a lot if we told him to do something,” Snead said.


Reality check? If you remove the reference to the “monster” living under their roof, James Snead could have been describing many teenagers struggling with depression and anxiety. He could have been describing my own 12-year-old son – who is most definitely not a monster but he does struggle with depression and anxiety, is constantly trying to figure out how to fit in, what to say and how to say it, questions everything, and apologizes constantly even when (especially when) he hasn’t done anything “wrong”.

To be fair, without hearing the interview in its entirety or having access to complete transcripts of the interview, it is impossible to know if those comments were taken out of context. But upon hearing those comments, I was screaming at the radio – “STOP THE SCAPEGOATING! MENTAL ILLNESS DOES NOT PREDICT OR EXPLAIN VIOLENCE!”

While it is not impossible for a person with mental illness to commit an act of violence – that alone is not a predictor of the likelihood that a person will commit an act of violence. There is vast research showing that most people with serious mental illnesses are never violent, and 95-97% of gun violence is not caused by a mental illness. Despite the abundance of research showing there is not a significant link between mental illness and violent behavior, Gallup polling data from January, 2013 showed that 48% of adult Americans blame the mental health system “a great deal” for mass shootings in the United States.

Less than 5% of gun violence can be directly linked to mental illness, and yet almost one-half of adults in this country believe there is a strong link between violent behavior and diagnosed mental illness – that’s a whole lot of people walking around with a misconception that paves the way for stigma, marginalizing, and scapegoating.

This scapegoating of “easy targets” feeds fears and leads to misinformed public opinion, and increases stigma toward a population which is already stigmatized and marginalized. This scapegoating allows the public conversation to remain in a space that  does not acknowledge or address the larger societal problems.

My son has level 1 autism spectrum disorder, anxiety disorder, panic disorder and depression. Those are facts, but they do not define him anymore than those same facts define any other adolescent with the exact same set of diagnoses. No two people are the same. No two people with autism are the same. No two people with mental illness are the same. Even if the shooter in Florida last week is found to be both on the spectrum and living with untreated mental illness – those things alone or together are NOT THE REASON he committed such a violent act.

We MUST STOP this societal finger-pointing and scapegoating. It is not productive – it is destructive. We are failing a generation of children by not addressing some very fundamental needs – mental health being central to that. Lack of access to treatment, lack of understanding, lack of funding, and societal stigma all add to a legitimate mental health crisis for this generation.

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