Blaming Everything On Mental Illness

The Associated Press has revised their AP Stylebook, the guide that most journalists use to standardize their writing, to include an entry on mental illness. Among many other important things that the entry includes, which you should read here, it says:

Do not describe an individual as mentally ill unless it is clearly pertinent to a story and the diagnosis is properly sourced.


Do not assume that mental illness is a factor in a violent crime, and verify statements to that effect. A past history of mental illness is not necessarily a reliable indicator. Studies have shown that the vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent, and experts say most people who are violent do not suffer from mental illness.

That first one is important because there is a tendency, whenever a person who has done something wrong also happens to have a mental illness, to attempt to tie those two things together.

Some things I have seen people (and, in some cases, medical authorities) try to blame on mental illness:

  • being violent
  • being religious
  • being an atheist
  • abusing children
  • spending money unwisely
  • raping people
  • stealing
  • bullying or harassing people
  • being upset by bullying and harassment
  • enjoying violent video games
  • being shy
  • being overly social
  • being too reliant on social approval
  • having casual sex
  • being into BDSM
  • not being interested in sex
  • dating multiple people
  • not wanting to date anyone
  • not wanting to have children
  • being attracted to someone of the same sex
  • being trans*
  • wanting to wear clothing that doesn’t “belong” to your gender

You’ll notice that these things run the gamut from completely okay to absolutely cruel. Some of them involve personal decisions that affect no one but the individual, while others affect others immeasurably. All of them are things that we’ve determined in our culture to be inappropriate on varying levels.

That last one, I believe, explains why these things (and many others) are so often attributed to mental illness. It is comforting to believe that people who flout social norms, whether they’re as minor as wearing the wrong clothing or as severe as abusing and killing others, do so for individual reasons or personal failings of some sort. It’s comforting because it means that such transgressions are the acts of “abnormal” people, people we could never be. It means that there are no structural factors we might want to examine and try to change because they contribute to things like this, and it means that we don’t have to reconsider our condemnation of those behaviors.

It’s easier to say that people who won’t obediently fit into one gender or the other are “sick” than to wonder if we’re wrong to prescribe such strict gender roles.

It’s easier to say that a mass shooter is “sick” than to wonder if we’ve made it too easy to access the sort of weapons that nobody would ever need for “self-defense.”

It’s easier to say that a rapist is “sick” than to wonder if something in our culture suggests to people over and over that rape isn’t really rape, and that doing it is okay.

It’s easier to say that a bully is “sick” than to wonder why we seem to be failing to teach children not to torment each other.

It’s easier to say that a compulsive shopper is “sick” than to wonder why consuming stuff is deemed so important to begin with.

Individual factors do exist, obviously, and they are important too. Ultimately people have choices to make, and sometimes they make choices that we can universally condemn (although usually things aren’t so black and white). Some things are mental illnesses, but even mental illnesses do not exist in some special biological/individual vacuum outside of the influence of society. In fact, in one of the most well-known books on sociology ever published, Émile Durkheim presents evidence that even suicide rates are influenced by cultural context.

In any case, it’s an understandable, completely human impulse to dismiss all deviant behaviors as the province of “mentally ill” people, but that doesn’t make it right.

It’s wrong for many reasons. It dilutes the concept of “mental illness” until it is almost meaningless, leading people to proclaim things like “Well everyone seems to have a mental illness these days” and dismiss the need for more funding, research, and treatment. It leads to increased stigma for mental illness when people inaccurately attribute behaviors that are universally accepted as awful, like mass shootings, to it. It causes those who have nothing “wrong” with them, such as asexual, kinky, and LGBTQ people, to keep trying to “fix” themselves rather than realizing that it’s our culture that’s the problem. It prevents us from working to change the factors that are actually contributing to these problems, such as rape culture, lack of gun control, and consumerism, because it keeps these factors invisible from us.

People disagree a lot regarding the role of the media in society. Should it merely report the facts as accurately as possible, or does it have a responsibility to educate people and promote change? Regardless of your stance on that, though, I think most people would agree that the media should at the very least do no harm. Blaming everything from murder to shyness on mental illness absolutely does harm, which is why I’m happy to see the Associated Press take a stand against it.

That said, it’s not enough for journalists to stop attributing everything to mental illness. The rest of us have to stop doing it too.

Blaming Everything On Mental Illness

11 thoughts on “Blaming Everything On Mental Illness

  1. 1

    At risk of Godwinning the thread, I like to bring up when this sort of thing comes up, is it really possible that every single German soldier in WW2 was insane? Or is it actually possible that a person with no mental illness can still be convinced to (or convince themselves to) commit horrific acts?

    1. 1.1

      Oh, damn, I forgot to link to the Milgram studies as is my custom. But yeah, research has suggested over and over that people can be persuaded to do all sorts of awful things. And no, being suggestible or gullible isn’t a mental illness either.

      I think that was an appropriate Godwin.

  2. 2

    On the ‘everybody has a mental illness these days.’ Well, thanks to higher standards of health and better knowledge of medicine and better diagnostic tools, what % of people these days have an identifiable physical illness or chronic medical condition?

    Quite a while ago I studied psychology, though it was social and cognitive psychology and not abnormal psychology so I didn’t really get into the issue of mental illness much, but when someone asked me why there existed so many different possible diagnosis, the only thing I could think is that you can’t get insurance to cover treatment for a condition if it isn’t labeled as a condition somewhere.

    And thanks for re-iterating that mental illnesses don’t exist in a vacuum. Look at military suicides – if we just looked at suicide as some kind of individual phenomenon, people would be asking ‘why do so many depressed people prone to suicide choose to enlist in the military?’ rather than ‘wow, multiple deployments in a war seemingly without end are *CAUSING* suicides.’

  3. 3

    We’ve been having that debate here in Canada too; the “tough on crime” chorus are pushing to make it harder for persons arrested for an offence and found not criminally responsible released after treatment. The usual fear-mongering rhetoric is going around, which is well answered here:

    Is it about safety?

    Only .001 per cent of Canadians who have been charged with a Criminal Code violation are found “not criminally responsible on account of mental disorder” in relation to a violent crime.

    Recidivism rate of that 0.001 per cent, is only 2.5-7.5 per cent.

    Recidivism rate of federal offenders in the regular justice system is 41-44 per cent

    Most persons found NCRMD under the current system already spend longer periods of time under the supervision of the review board, than if they had gone to jail…

  4. 4

    If mental illness were responsible for all the evil things ascribed to it, there wouldn’t be anyone left in many countries on the planet; we all would’ve killed each other or been killed in the crossfire. Mind you, there are some real mental illness concerns, like folks who can’t work and end up homeless because of PTSD, but we should be concerned for them, not because of them. And yes, our institutions (like schools) could do a better job of keeping an eye on kids who might have violent tendencies if they were properly funded. But I am personally offended at the notion that all of us who take psychotropic meds to treat one condition or another are somehow a menace to society.

  5. 5

    This is a nasty problem.

    There is abundant evidence that there was a surge in crime as a result of the use of tetra-ethyl lead in gasoline, starting in the 1950’s, with about a 23-year lag, which rapidly declined when lead was banned because of the introduction of catalytic converters. The same phenomenon, displaced in time, could be observed in other countries as they adopted and then banned leaded gas. The communities most affected, those with the most traffic congestion and the highest atmospheric concentration of lead, often blamed social factors for the increase in crime and credited aggressive policing for its abatement, when it might well have been due to brain damage.

    I’ll bring up rape because there was a discussion tonight at Pharyngula, but there’s substantial evidence that a small minority of men are responsible for a majority of rapes. That certainly doesn’t leave the rest of society off the hook; at least to the degree that we blame the victim we’re complicit in the crime; but if in fact that’s the case it should help us to focus our efforts. Amanda Marcotte thinks that the worthy Canadian initiative, “Don’t Be That Guy”, was effective because it put the bad guys on notice. It stigmatizes the deviates, and at least in this case it might be the right thing to do.

    It’s good news that the violence some of us grew up with was the result of brain damage that most children now no longer incur. “That’s just the way people are” isn’t as true any more.

    Contrariwise, rape isn’t just boys being boys. It’s predominantly hardcore predators.

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