We Have to Stop Blaming Hate Crimes on Mental Illness

Racism, Hate, And Bigotry Are Not Mental Health Disorders

Depressed mature man sitting on couch
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Hate crimes are, unfortunately, common. In fact, the act — which involves attacking, discriminating, and/or intimidating individuals of different races, sexual orientations, or religions — occurs on a fairly regular basis. According to a report from the United States Department of Justice, there were 7,314 hate crime incidents in 2019 involving 8,559 offenses. This means thousands of individuals were killed or persecuted for simply being and breathing. For living their life. And this is NOT okay.

Full.

Fucking.

Stop.

There is no room in our society for bigotry, misogyny, sexism, racism, or homophobia. Hating people because they are “different” is ignorant, at best. But it’s also time we start separating mental illness from cruelty, brutality, and terrorism. It’s time we stop blaming hate crimes on mental illness, because depression doesn’t make people vicious or vile.

Racism, hate, and bigotry are not mental health disorders.

Now I know what you’re thinking, or — at the very least — what some of you are thinking: How? Why? Violence and mental instability (seemingly) go hand in hand. I mean, “normal” people don’t attack others. They don’t hurt others, and they certainly don’t go shooting up schools or massage parlors. A savage machete attack or a seemingly random burst of deadly gunfire on a city street or the subway is clearly not the behavior of someone “thinking straight.” But in blaming mental illness, we chastise those who are mentally ill — perpetuating stereotypes and using vulnerable individuals as a scapegoat. We also disregard criminal behavior.

Just because we do not understand a criminal’s mind does not mean it is a “sick” mind. It does not mean that it is a “psychotic/schizophrenic/bipolar” mind. It is a criminal’s mind, through and through. And we need to acknowledge that. While some 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 [of  criminal behavior or violence, including] access to firearms, substance use or abuse, and past history of violence or arrests,” Jonathan Metz, a professor of psychiatry, sociology, and medicine, health, and society at Vanderbilt University, tells Vox. Domestic abuse is also a common predictor of one’s behavior, as is hate itself.

Hate crimes are an extreme form of prejudice,” the American Psychological Association explains, “made more likely in the context of social and political change. Public and political discourse may devalue members of unfamiliar groups, and offenders may feel that their livelihood or way of life is threatened by demographic changes. Offenders may not be motivated by hate, but rather by fear, ignorance or anger. These can lead to dehumanization of unfamiliar groups and to targeted aggression.”

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“What spurs offenders into action is rarely animosity alone,” a 2017 article on CNN added. “It’s a toxic mix of emotions, from anger to fear to indignation.” 

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.” Let me repeat that: Those with mental illness are more likely to be attacked by others than to be the attacker themselves.

What’s more, up to 18 percent of the population has had — or lives with — a mental health disorder. This means that approximately one billion people have depression, anxiety, PTSD, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or borderline personality disorder — people like me. I am one in a billion. And yet I do not hate people for the color of their skin, or for who they love. I do not discriminate against individuals based on their country of origin or religious beliefs, and I definitely do not want to hurt anyone. Like many individuals with mental illness, I am passive, not aggressive; an empath at heart. In short, mental health conditions do not cause disturbing, barbaric behaviors, nor do they make an individual hateful. 

Research debunks that mental illness is the underlying trigger.

And yet we as a society continue to blame hate crimes and mass shootings on mental illness, regardless of the research and facts. We continue to point fingers, putting down those who are (most) in need of assistance, aid, and support. And we fail to talk about the other factors which make individuals engage in such activity. Instead of working to solve the problem — which is, again, an undercurrent of intolerance and discrimination — we turn a blind eye to it because those conversations are trying. They are challenging, awkward, and uncomfortable.

But it’s time we address the truth. It’s time we tackle these “tough” topics. And it’s time we stop defending those who engage in racist, misogynistic, and bigoted behaviors — even if their actions are seemingly benign, i.e. a rude remark here or an off-color joke there. Because the real cause of hate crimes is hate. Period. And the only way to combat hate is with humanity and empathy. It’s with (vocal) support for marginalized groups, action, and love. Lots of love.