We still have a long way to go when it comes to eradicating stigma around mental health.
In an op-ed for the New York Times last week, Boston University sociology professor Liah Greenfield argued that in order to effectively eliminate individual acts of terror, society needs to address mental illness.
“The rates of mental illness, especially depression, in the West are very high and, according to the most authoritative statistics, steadily rising,” she wrote. “Unless we resolve this problem, we’ll have to learn to live with terrorism.”
The implication that lone-wolf terrorism will be less of an issue if we treat mental health problems is not only misinformed, it’s incredibly stigmatizing. That’s because mental illness does not equate to violent behavior.
Nearly one in four individuals globally will be affected by a mental health issue at some point in their life. That’s a significant number of people ― the majority of whom will live productive, normal lives with proper treatment.
Of course, that’s not to say that some of the individuals who committed acts of terrorism, like the one that took place in Nice, France on July 14, didn’t have psychological issues at play ― but unless it was clinically diagnosed, we’ll never definitively know.
Statistically, it’s unlikely that someone with a mental health issue will commit a violent crime. Only 3 to 5 percent of violent acts can be attributed to those with a serious mental illness. In fact, those with a mental illness are more likely to be victims of a harmful incident.
How assumptions about violence can be harmful
Greenfield, author of Mind, Modernity, Madness: The Impact of Culture on Human Experience, said her goal was to highlight the growing issue of mental illness and how society contributes to it.
In a comment to The Huffington Post, she said that a majority of those with mental illness don’t commit violent crimes and when they do, it’s usually through self-harm. However, a violent act against others could still be carried out by someone with a mental health condition, she said.
“One should always keep in mind that this is a possibility,” she said. “In order to stop lone-wolf terrorism, we have to take care of mental illness.”
Therein lies the problem. While Greenfield’s intention is to reduce stigma and create a better understanding around mental health ― which is both necessary and admirable on a public platform like the Times ― it’s executed questionably.
A blanket statement that implies addressing mental illness will address terrorist attacks doesn’t take away the negative stereotype around mental health, it perpetuates it. Of course someone with a mental illness could commit one of these violent acts. But so could someone with no history of a mental health disorder.
“The implications of making an assumption like this are potentially profound,” Gregory Dalack, chair of the department of psychiatry at the University of Michigan, told HuffPost. “It encourages the public to equate violence with mental illness, when we know that the vast majority of those who commit violent acts are not mentally ill and the vast majority of those with mental illness do not behave in violent ways.”
These types of assumptions also give off the false perception that a mental health disorder is some sort of character flaw. This can impede recovery or even prevent people from seeking help in the first place, Dalack says.
Those currently struggling with mental illness may become cautious about disclosing their mental health issues to medical professionals, friends or family. They may delay or altogether avoid seeking treatment for fear of how they will be judged and treated. Gregory Dalack, chair of the department of psychiatry at the University of Michigan
“Those currently struggling with mental illness may become cautious about disclosing their mental health issues to medical professionals, friends or family,” he explained. “They may delay or altogether avoid seeking treatment for fear of how they will be judged and treated.”
The unfortunate pattern of blaming mental illness
This is hardly the first time someone has made this type of insinuation. After the killing of two Virginia journalists last year, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump said that the incident wasn’t “a gun problem, but this is a mental problem.” The same logic was also used after the crash of a Germanwings airline back in early 2015 by authorities investigating the case.
The media also isn’t entirely blameless, either. A recent Johns Hopkins University study found that more than a third of news stories about mental illness link the disorders with violence toward other people, which doesn’t accurately reflect the actual rates of interpersonal violence involving someone with a mental illness.
“Broad generalizations about a specific group of people, like those with mental illness, are so troubling because they can lead to that group being harshly pre-judged and discriminated against,” Dalack said.
If our collective intention is to advocate for more acceptance, we need to do so without promoting the false notion that mental illness is the cause of violent behavior. Because, on the whole, it’s not, and that attitude is why we still have such a negative view of mental health in the first place.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the date of the Nice attack. It took place on July 14, not June 14. We sincerely apologize for this error.