The problem with “crazy.”

A friend on Facebook pointed me to a scary firsthand account of a random shooting. It’s terrifying, and I’m glad that the author and bystanders weren’t badly hurt. But the article bothered me. Quite a bit, actually.

He says (bolding mine):

“All things considered, I’m really lucky. Not only am I alive and didn’t witness him shooting himself, as so many did, I have extremely supportive family and friends, I have an understanding employer, and I have resources to talk to.

The shooter was mentally ill and wasn’t so lucky. The lesson I’m taking away from this is that we need to make mental health a priority in ourselves and in our communities. Support your local mental health organizations in whatever ways you can, financially and by forcing politicians to take the issue more seriously.”

I don’t know the details of this incident and can’t speak as to the mental health of this particular shooter, but I’m seriously uncomfortable with the way we tend to jump to analyze shooters’ motives (often after they’re dead) and so often conclude that they must have been mentally ill. Some undoubtedly are, whether they were diagnosed by a therapist or diagnosed posthumously after examination of their personal effects and interrogation of their family and friends. But some of these guys are just angry assholes with a score to settle with the world.

I have absolutely no problem with the rest of that particular post. I agree wholeheartedly that there needs to be a change in how we deal with mental illness as a civilized society. But we shouldn’t be doing it because of all these dangerous “mentally ill” people shooting up our schools.

We should be doing it for the anorexics who think their skeletal bodies are still too fat. For those with anxiety disorders severe enough to keep them shut up in their homes. For those plagued by addictions and compulsions that have taken over their lives. For those who are so deeply depressed that they can’t see a way out of the darkness except to take their own lives.

It should be obvious that we need to increase funding for mental health resources. It should not take tragedies to make that happen.

I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that everyone knows someone with a mental health issue. Mental illness is more than schizophrenia (and schizophrenia isn’t the devil it’s often made out to be, either). The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is a standard published by the American Psychiatric Association to serve as a reference for the definitions of mental disorders. Take a moment and have a look at their list of mental disorders, then think about all the people you know. Do you know someone with autism? Alzheimers? Bipolar disorder? Depression? These are legitimate mental illnesses. People living with any one of the DSM’s list of disorders would be better served by better public awareness of the realities of mental health issues, as opposed to the scary stuff we see about “crazy people” on TV.

I don’t know what to call the people with a broken moral compass and a need for vengeance or notoriety. “Mentally ill” or “crazy” are convenient and do have a ring of truth, because what adult human being of sound mind could walk into a school and murder children? We need a way to express that there must be something wrong with these people; they’re not like the rest of us. But we need a better way. When “mentally ill” is used as an explanation for reprehensible behavior, it takes that label out of its medical context and makes it into something so much more dangerous. We need to encourage people to get help, not keep them quiet around their families and teachers and doctors for fear that they’ll be labeled. Because we’ve made “crazy” a dangerous label.

4 thoughts on “The problem with “crazy.”

  1. Mark Gordon

    Here’s the latest from local media on the shooting in question. Beyond saying that the shooter was “known to police,” there’s nothing public about any diagnoses, though it’s entirely possible that police said something to the victims that they haven’t shared with the media yet.

    One context in which I think “crazy” needs to be discussed, if not quite in those terms, is that of gun control. If we know in advance that someone is, for the sake of example, struggling with depression, it makes sense that it should be harder for that person to get a gun, more from a standpoint of concern for them than one of fear of them. I’ve lost enough friends to suicide to understand that there are bigger dangers than social stigma.

    There’s a broader question that causes me to pull my hair out: the question of responsibility. It often feels like there’s such a dogmatic insistence that the mentally ill aren’t ever dangerous that when people with mental illnesses cause harm to other people, they’re held criminally responsible for their behavior and sent to prisons rather than hospitals. Since suggesting that their illness played a role in their behavior would cause social harm to others with mental illnesses, they’re thrown under a bus. I don’t think that’s right.

    1. antijen Post author

      I agree with you on the subject of gun control, but I’m also pretty uncomfortable with guns anyway, so take my opinion with that grain of salt. I definitely think that people with mental illnesses should have a harder time getting access to guns, but I think the same should be true of anyone with any history of violence or substance abuse. Whether a person’s violent impulses and emotional distress are rooted in mental illness or not, their presence should be enough to make firearms less accessible to them.

      The responsibility question bugs me too, and I think that’s why it’s so important for people to be talking more about all this. Some mentally ill people are violent and dangerous. Some are not. Some perpetrators of terrible crimes are being guided by an unsound mind, and some are not. If I’m hearing the voice of the Lord in my ears and he’s telling me to burn down my neighbors’ house, maybe I need help more than I need prison time. But what if I’m depressed after losing my job, and decide to try and take some coworkers down with me* when I take my own life? In this case, I’m mentally ill, and likely need help for the depression, but I think I damn well deserve years behind bars for the people I’ve harmed. Each case needs to be looked at individually, but it’s in our nature to categorize and label, and that can trip us up. Better understanding of mental illnesses and how they affect the people living with them is really the only way to get better at labeling people correctly and dealing with their actions in the best way.

      I guess my biggest problem is that I’m not happy with “mentally ill” being so often equated with “rampaging murderer.” It’s true some of the time, yes. But it’s like saying that because some violent people speak French, all French-speakers are violent. It’s just not true, and it hurts a whole lot of people to be painted with that brush.

      *Don’t worry, coworkers. This is all totally hypothetical and I’m not going to kill any of you. Or myself, for that matter. Promise.

      1. Mark Gordon

        “I definitely think that people with mental illnesses should have a harder time getting access to guns, but I think the same should be true of anyone with any history of violence or substance abuse.”

        I’m not sure all mental illnesses are alike when it comes to the question of danger to selves and others. If someone is OCD, they might keep their gun meticulously clean and their ammunition neatly organized, but I don’t think they’re necessarily more dangerous. On the other hand, someone with Alzheimer’s might conceivably mistake a spouse for a burglar. This brings us to a broader social question, one that was critical in the Newtown shooting: should weapons be secured against family members who can’t be trusted with them? Political discussions focus largely on purchase, with the black market and theft being suggested as alternatives that criminals can trivially pursue, but in many cases, the easiest target for theft is a family member. This is the context in which firearms for “home protection” most often fail catastrophically.

        History of violence is not always a problem, if the violence was legally sanctioned: legal hunting, police, military, self-defense. I’d narrow it to criminal violence, and I’d argue that convicted poachers generally (with exceptions for hunters who turn themselves, e.g. after misidentifying illegal quarry) ought to be unable to purchase or possess firearms. In general, felons are prohibited from possessing firearms, but I’m not sure that’s the perfect test. There are some non-violent property crimes considered felonies that don’t worry me so much as some of the more violent misdemeanors, especially misdemeanor domestic violence.

        As for history of substance abuse, much depends on the substance. Caffeine will just make your aim shakier while you’re on it. 😉 Someone who’d been addicted to pain pills but had gotten off them might not be a problem. A repeat offense drunk driver, on the other hand, has demonstrated that they’re dangerously irresponsible. With respect to illegal drugs, dealers are often more prone to violence than users.

        “I guess my biggest problem is that I’m not happy with “mentally ill” being so often equated with “rampaging murderer.””

        Oh, I quite agree there. Part of the problem is all the media attention some of these events get, combined with the difficulty we all have trying to understand them. That said, I have a number of stories I could tell that all hit very close to home, and these have colored my perceptions significantly. With the high-profile stories, it’s easy to lose track of scale and believe that these events are much more frequent than they actually are; I get the impression that the lower-profile, local stories are often much more representative.

        I think part of the problem with the issue of responsibility is that we’re all trying to behave ourselves, as much as we’re all tempted to lash out at others from time to time, and we’re reluctant to allow others to adhere to a more lax standard, since if we allow them off the hook, then we might be tempted to allow ourselves off the hook, and we don’t want to do that.


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