Mental Illness Is Not Typically Linked To Violent Crime, So Stop The Stigma

by Kimberly Zapata
Marcus Yam / Getty Images

I woke up yesterday morning to the sound of little feet. To the sight of my little girl worming her way into my room and into my big, squishy bed.

And as we lay together — in the darkness — everything felt good.

Today, I thought, is going to be good. I just had a feeling.

But then I got up and heard the news: There was a mass shooting. Another mass shooting, and this time, hundreds were injured.

Dozens of Las Vegas residents and tourists were dead. 58 confirmed, so far.

Of course, my immediate thoughts were of my own family and friends. How were they? Where were they? Was everyone I knew safe? But then came the anger. The sadness. The wave of shock, grief and fear.

Again. We have turned on one another again.

But turning on one another didn’t end there. It never does because, as always, social media immediately became a war zone. People were fighting about gun violence and gun control. Some were calling for all gun sales to cease while others were boasting about their concealed carry permit. And others were firmly blaming mental illness. He was “obviously crazy. He clearly had an undiagnosed mental illness.”

And my personal favorite: “Get it straight. A gun is not what caused this. Crazy caused this” because only “crazy people” commit crimes.

Only “mentally ill” individuals commit violent crimes.

Make no mistake: There are criminals who struggle with mental illness and who face a wide variety of mental health concerns. However, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the vast majority of people with mental health problems are no more likely to be violent than anyone else.” In fact, “only 3%–5% of violent acts can be attributed to individuals living with a serious mental illness.” Furthermore, “people with severe mental illnesses are over 10 times more likely to be victims of [a] violent crime than the general population.”

That’s right. People with mental health concerns are more likely to be a victim of violence than a perpetrator.

And while I am a huge proponent of comprehensive mental health care — I am a patient first and an advocate second, one who strongly believes proper screenings and care are of the utmost importance — the discussion we should be having today isn’t about “crazy people.” At all. Because crazy people don’t commit crimes, criminals do, and we need start calling a spade a spade.

We need to stop falling back on “crazy” as an excuse for acts of violence because doing so isn’t just inaccurate, it is dangerous. It is stigmatizing, and it is detrimental to the entire mental health community. We don’t need that blame heaped upon us. It is an insult to every single person who struggles from, or with, a mental illness.

It also allows both policymakers and the general public to ignore the bigger, more complicated issues at hand: issues of accessibility, accountability, and gun reform.

Of course, this response is nothing new. Every time there is a mass shooting — ever freakin’ time — articles pop up questioning the shooter’s mental state, and people hypothesize as to what sort of derangement he (or she) may have been suffering from. And I get it. Sort of. I mean, how could someone of a sane mind commit such a heinous act, so cold and callous and seemingly without remorse?

But just because we do not understand a criminal’s mind does not mean it is an “ill” mind. It does not mean it is a “sick” mind, and it does not mean that it is a “psychotic/schizophrenic/bipolar/insert other mental illness here” mind. Stop it.

It is a criminal’s mind, and according to Jonathan Metzl, a professor of psychiatry, sociology, and medicine, health, and society at Vanderbilt University, there is more to that mind than mental illness: While some mass shooters may exhibit “psychiatric or psychological symptoms […] there are a lot of other factors that aren’t linked to mental illness that are equally predictive if not more predictive, [including] access to firearms, substance use or abuse, and past history of violence or arrests.”

And while I do not know the mental state of the Las Vegas shooter, I do know the man was a murderer. He was a terrorist. A violent criminal hell bent on causing pain, death, and destruction.

So, please, watch your words. I know we are all angry, scared, and sad, but be mindful of your words and remember that if there is something you want to talk about today — if there is something you want to bitch or vent or do about these tragedies — how about asking why we sell the average American citizen assault rifles? Why are semiautomatic weapons legal? And why are the limitations on gun and ammo sales so lax? What happened to comprehensive background checks?

Because the problem isn’t “crazy people.” The problem is that, “crazy” or not, no one needs access to an assault rifle.

Not now. Not ever.