By Kate Anderson
People with mental illnesses have often been painted with a broad stroke as being “dangerous” by the media and societies around the world. This ableist depiction, which has increased in recent years with the frequent mass shootings in the United States, has only served to increase the stigmatization of mental illness and worsen public health outcomes.
The connection between mental illness and violence is complex and the assertion that people with mental health disabilities are more prone to committing violent acts is largely based on myths and ableist ideas. Studies show that a diagnosis on its own is not sufficient to indicate a tendency towards violence and that many other risk factors are at play, including being young, male, disadvantaged, and abusing drugs or alcohol. Research also shows that mentally ill people are more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators of crime. Due to this societal misunderstanding, people with mental health disabilities face negative outcomes and institutionalization, which causes further harm.
A History of Stigmatization
Historically, people with mental disabilities and physical disabilities have been shunned by many societies. Ancient cultures and early Puritanical Christians believed that disabilities were due to evil or sin, a mindset that was forcibly spread around the world through colonization. To this day, on Halloween, one can find people dressed in costumes featuring disabilities as “scary” characters. The list of ways people manufacture disability-related fears goes on. Although acceptance of mentally ill people has grown in recent years, a recent study showed that over a third of the public in the UK believes that people with mental health problems are prone to violence.
Due to these invalid fears and assumptions, people with mental illness have often been institutionalized without due cause. One of the most well-known cases of mentally ill people being institutionalized against their will was when disability rights advocate Lois Curtis, who had a number of mental illnesses, was institutionalized at the Georgia Regional Hospital when she was just 11 years old. In May of 1995, Curtis sued Tommy Olmstead, the then-commissioner of the Georgia Department of Human Resources, after Olmstead denied Curtis’ requests to leave the mental institution and live in her community.
Olmstead v. L.C., a Supreme Court decision in 1999, determined it illegal to unjustifiably segregate people with disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ACA). This landmark case has allowed many people with mental illness and other disabilities to receive community-based care in lieu of being sent to an institution.
Progress such as the Olmstead decision has been built upon the efforts of countless individuals, organizations, and coalitions, including the Psychiatric Survivors Movement. This movement, which began in the 1970s and still prevails today, led by survivors of psychiatric abuse, seeks to promote advocacy and protect rights among current and former mental illness patients. The Psychiatric Survivors Movement was inspired by the Civil Rights Movement and came at a time when lobotomy and shock therapy spread across the United States. Judi Chamberlin, who was one of the early pioneers of the Psychiatric Survivors Movement, was involuntarily admitted into the psychiatric ward of Mount Sinai Hospital in New York after being diagnosed with schizophrenia and depression. Following her discharge, she frequently spoke of the abuse she experienced when she was institutionalized, referring to herself as a “prisoner of the system.”
“There are real indignities and real problems when all facets of life are controlled—when to get up, to eat, to shower—and chemicals are put inside our bodies against our will,” Chamberlin told The New York Times in 1981.
Why Institutionalization Is Unsafe
People with mental disabilities have usually been frequently admitted into institutions with the idea that they are a threat to themselves or public safety. While there are cases where people with mental illness pose danger of suicide or violence against others, this risk is only slightly elevated compared to the risk of violence among the general population.
Too often, institutionalization occurs due to ableism and worsens disabilities instead of providing healing and treatment. Institutions generally cut off individuals from society and can further damage health due to excessive medication, seclusion, and abuse. Low wages and high turnover among institution staff pose risks for improper care, an issue that became deadly for thousands of disabled people living in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities when the coronavirus pandemic began in 2020. The Olmstead ruling states, “Unjustified placement or retention of persons in institutions severely limits their exposure to the outside community, and therefore constitutes a form of discrimination based on disability.”
Alternative, equitable forms of mental health support exist. When mentally disabled people receive affordable, comprehensive, and individualized care, they benefit greatly and see better long-term outcomes. However, community-based programs to provide this care on a long-term basis require more funding than is commonly granted.
The Media’s Role in Stigmatization
While policy reforms can create much-needed progress for those living with mental disabilities, who are unfairly deemed dangerous, the mass media also plays a major role in this dialogue and needs an overhaul. The media regularly fails to represent people with disabilities in an authentic way, and the same is true for mental disabilities. Sometimes this involves perpetuating negative stereotypes about people with depression and implying that all those who are depressed are suicidal. Other times, representations depict people with disabilities such as schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder as experiencing dangerous hallucinations in an unfairly inaccurate manner. Some portrayals overgeneralize mental illness and go to the other extreme by trivializing serious conditions, such as anorexia nervosa.
A recent example of the media painting mental illness as dangerous occurred on May 1, when Jordan Neely, a Black man experienced a mental health episode on a New York City subway and was subsequently choked to death by a white male passenger. Neely was described as “unhinged” and “hostile and erratic” by major news organizations. Language like this implies that people with mental illnesses deserve to be dehumanized and killed and further perpetuates ableist beliefs in society. Black disabled people are often villainized using both ableism and racism, which is overwhelmingly used to institutionalize them, placing them in prisons and jails that similarly fail to meet basic health and safety needs. Language matters, as does representation. Society, news outlets, and television shows naturally seek a scapegoat following scary, violent events. When people make violent choices that are hard to understand, explaining them away by saying that they are “crazy” is commonplace, and we see this in news media as well as in fictional depictions of serial killers and other villains. But by choosing to air certain terminology and storylines, they contribute to negative stereotypes and the incorrect, ableist belief that people with mental disabilities are inherently dangerous.
The media has the power to influence public perception and using careless, ableist language only helps to spread the narrative that mentally disabled people are a threat to society.
Solutions to Change Beliefs and Outcomes
Solutions exist to combat mental illness stigmatization, to improve treatment outcomes, and to reduce violence, whether the perpetrator is mentally disabled or not.
Ahmar Mannan Butt, M.D., a psychiatrist at Broadlawns Medical Center in Des Moines, Iowa, acknowledges the complexity of gun violence, stating,“One discipline cannot address this multifaceted issue. We need help from all disciplines, and education is the first step.”
The mass media can implement many changes to its dialogue around mental illness. This can include training journalists or providing psychiatric expert consultations during film production, and inserting mental health into the story only when accurate and relevant. Many organizations also offer accessibility services and disability bias training.
There is also a need to further investigate the reasons why people turn to violence. Although mental illness can sometimes be a contributing factor, more research and awareness can reveal the most common risk factors and warning signs. With research-based data and training, mental health counselors can learn to help provide individuals with effective, safe treatments and interventions.
Gun violence and other forms of violence are an ongoing challenge in the United States and globally. The stigmatization of mentally disabled people in psychiatry, the media, and society is not effective or fair and this scapegoating ultimately causes enormous harm, especially for people with disabilities. With further investment in community-based services, improved news coverage, and updated policies, safety for everyone is possible.
Kate Anderson is a Freelance Writer for WID.