The Myth of Mental Illness and Extreme Violence

In case you missed it, Peter Hitchens has been writing his typical nonsense – this time insisting that Jo Cox’s killer was mentally ill. The always-phenomenal Secret Barrister has written one of their amazing deconstructions of this argument – about what mental illness means in legal proceedings, how it affects acts of violence, how legal professionals decide what goes before juries.

As a disability activist, I’ve had to talk a lot about the way society defaults to ‘mental illness’ as a reason for acts of extreme violence. It’s a comforting lie, and harms everyone.

There’s no doubt that some acts of violence are caused by mental illness, but there are very specific parameters for that (see the Secret Barrister’s piece).

Acts of extreme violence, whether mass murder, assassination, terrorism, or murdering your loved ones, are horrifying.

It’s comforting to believe people have to be ‘crazy’ to do something like this, but it’s absolutely not true. Research shows that mental illness of the kind people usually mean when they call someone ‘crazy’ or ‘insane’ is not correlated to acts of mass murder. The overwhelming majority of people who commit them are perfectly ‘sane’. There are plenty of mental health conditions which a person might have which do not make them ‘insane’, because that term implies a loss of reason and inability to judge reality. And it’s important that we talk about this assumption.

We have a responsibility to talk about violence in society in a way which actually addresses the core problems. We know that people with mental illnesses are in fact multiple times more likely to be victims of violence than the general population.

Violence isn’t about mental illness. It’s caused by a lot of things – anger, frustration, fear, entitlement, bigotry, hatred. Those are all things we have a responsibility to address as a society. If it was mental illness which caused extreme violence, if it was having been bullied or marginalised, then most perpetrators of extreme violence would be people from marginalised groups who are the targets of bullying and cruelty all the time. But they’re not.

It is definitely worth mentioning, however, that one major correlating factor in many acts of extreme violence like mass murders is a history of domestic abuse. More than half of mass shootings in the US are rooted in domestic violence.

It’s tempting to call it mental illness because it means we don’t have to think any more about how to fix it. But whenever we do that, we make life harder for all the people who do have mental health conditions. I talked about it in my piece for Bella Caledonia today – that using mental illness as a spook story or reason for suspicion makes it easy for women with mental illnesses to be abused without question, because she must ‘just be crazy’ or ‘he’s heroic for staying with her’.


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