Violence and mental illness
When I first read about the Sandy Hook shootings, I was in shock. I immediately knew that I needed to write about it, but I needed time to find the words to write and the angle from which to approach it. As I read the news stories, one theme surfaced, time after time: mental illness. As a mentally ill person—I’m bipolar II—my heart sank.
It sank under the weight of the stigma attached to this diagnosis; it sank under the weight of condemning, humiliating suggestions in the news stories’ comments. “Let’s lock ‘em all up,” one commenter wrote. (By all means keep YOUR freedom to own a gun, but take away my freedom to live my life. Very logical.) “We can’t let the crazies win,” one local newspaper columnist wrote several months ago, and I felt that stinging, dismissive-of-me attitude again all across the web.
And a part of me wondered: could a mental illness make me violent? And if I was wondering that, there must be others wondering that, too, and wondering if some day, they’d “snap” and kill innocent people.
Here is my unprofessional, unsolicited opinion. I don’t believe that a mental illness, if it is truly a physical illness, can force anyone to commit a wrong. It can make someone more prone to certain temptations (and thus certain sins) but I cannot see how an illness that originates in the physical body can cause a person to sin spiritually.
(I’m not talking about the annoying things we do that are caused by our mental illnesses, such as talking too much or too loudly or being delusional or illogical, but about actual wrongdoings, such as violent outbursts or the taking of another human’s life.)
The problem, of course, is that it’s virtually impossible to separate the physical and spiritual components of a person. We’re not machines that can be taken apart and put back together; we’re complex, complicated people with everything—spiritual, emotional, mental, physical—all messed up together. Trying to pull out one strand and conclusively define our ailments is arrogant; that would put us on level with God, and believe me, we ain’t him.
But I’ve noticed a curious thing since my diagnosis. Most people can’t view themselves or others in a balanced way. Most ignore one or more aspect of their being to focus on the others. The people I confided in about my new diagnosis responded one of two ways. Either they believed it was an exclusively spiritual issue—you must have a demon in you, want an exorcism?—or believed it was entirely physical—just take your meds and you’ll be fine (please go away)! Both responses were dismissive of the complexity of my being.
The problem was that I wasn’t fine, even with medication. I had scars, lingering wounds from my isolation during my worst days, wounds from those who rejected me because I now took meds to even out my moods, wounds from having my problems ignored or dismissed, over and over and over. No medication in the world is good enough to heal our wounded hearts.
And it became tempting to harbor bitterness toward my wounders. So in a very real sense, my physical illness led me into a spiritually vulnerable place, a place where it would be easy to allow myself to justify my anger.
Take it a step further, and I might justify fantasizing about retaliation.
Take it another step or two, and I might actually retaliate, at first in petty ways.
Take that petty revenge a few more steps along this destructive path, squashing my conscience until I no longer hear the still, small voice of God in my heart, and any number of horrible results might happen. But they’d all be destructive, both to myself and others.
This often happens, and not just with the truly mentally ill. But coupled with a mental illness, where a person can be unreasonable, illogical, and delusional during their worst moments, and the result can be devastating.
These are just my thoughts on the matter, and how I’ve worked things out in my own mind in regard to my mental illness. I’m not a professional anything, so you can take it for what it’s worth. I welcome anyone else’s thoughts about this topic.