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.

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7 thoughts on “Violence and mental illness

  1. Here’s my take on mental illness and criminal behavior, Laura: no population-wide causal connection. Of course I’m just a lay observer, but what I’ve observed in my courtroom is that while some crimes are committed by people with mental health problems many more are committed by people who have no mental illness.

    You’re right, we don’t see ourselves or others in a balanced way. (Marvelous insight, by the way!) I am so glad that God sees us as we truly are, and loves us truly and eternally as well. It’s the only love that goes to all parts of us entirely because he sees all there is to see in us and knows all there is to know about us.

    Oh, and I love your description of the two ways people reacted when you told them your diagnosis. made me grin despite how sad they were!

    Blessings,
    Tim

    P.S. I wrote about the Connecticut shooting soon afterward. Or not really about the shooting, but about decisions to own, possess and carry firearms: http://timfall.wordpress.com/2012/12/17/killing-kindergartners-and-why-i-still-dont-carry-a-concealed-weapon/

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    1. I love your observation about God’s love going to all parts of us! That is always so comforting to remember when one (or more) parts of me is broken.

      Thanks for sharing what you’ve seen in your courtroom; that adds a lot. I wonder if one reason that people are quick to blame mental illness for crimes is because, if we consider that someone could be totally sane and commit a horrific crime, that pushes the boundaries of what type of behavior is possible within the bounds of sanity; that, in turn, disturbs the general public because if a totally sane person could commit a horrible crime, it says something about the depravity of human nature. And very few people really want to believe that humans are basically depraved (and thus in need of salvation, not just “help”.) I hope that made sense!

      I’ve been immersed in novel-writing, so I haven’t read too many blogs recently. I’ll be sure to check out your link!

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      1. That makes perfect sense, Laura. Have you read C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength? It’s the third volume of his science fiction trilogy (my favorite of the three) and gets into the same ideas. One thing he explores in the book is how we can go off the rails if we see crime as a symptom of an illness to be cured by human effort as opposed to an indication of our fallen spiritual state. Of course, he’s a master story teller, so it is all very entertaining.

        I hope your writing is coming along well, Laura. if you want a break to read something a bit more uplifting than that firearm post I mentioned above, I just put up a two part article on my salvation story. It’s kind of amusing, I think. Here’s the link to part one if you’re interested.

        Cheers,
        Tim

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      2. I haven’t read that Lewis book, but I think I have it on my shelf. I think I’ll check out what he has to say. And I can’t wait to read your salvation story!

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  2. I have had issues with mental illness too, but never really felt overwhelming urges to hurt people. We are all complex as human beings, and mental illness is such an unusual thing, that sometimes I do wonder what it really means. Surely if someone takes an assault rifle and kills a load of people they don’t know, isn’t that person mentally ill? Yet, if we assume that to do terrible things one must be mentally ill, aren’t we making crass and unfair generalising assumptions? I’ve heard people say that Hitler was completely mad to do what he did, but when we say that, aren’t we letting him off the hook somewhat? I think he was deranged and delusional and a complete egocentric megalmaniac, but calling him mad or even mentally ill misses the point somewhat. All human beings have the capacity for doing good and we all have the capacity for doing bad, mental illness and anything else aside.

    It’s highly unlikely that you or I, with our mental health issues, will harm anyone else or want to harm someone else, thank God. Obeying God trumps every issue.

    In a country like the US where so many guns are owned and often buying a gun is like buying a bag of groceries, I wonder why there are not more shootings to be honest. It is a kind of madness to allow just anybody to own a weapon that can knock down walls and should only be used on a battlefield. That’s another story though.

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    1. Good thoughts, Tim. When I’ve read the DSM-IV, with all the different illnesses one can be diagnosed with, I really wonder what “healthy” and “sane” look like and if I know anyone who doesn’t fit one or another of these criteria for “mental illness.” Personally, I think we’re all going to be held accountable for what we’ve done, whether or not we were in full possession of our mental faculties at the time; at the same time, I think God is perfectly merciful and just and knows how to sort out all of sane/insane stuff far better than I do!

      And what’s reassuring is that even truly insane people can commit great acts of goodness and mercy. I’m reminded of Alexander Cruden (I think that’s his name) who wrote the concordance to the KJV Bible several centuries ago; he suffered extreme mental problems and did many foolish things, but also helped a great many people through his “foolish” deeds. (Like saving a man from execution and helping a prostitute get out of prostitution.)

      It’s always good to get a non-U.S. perspective on things. I’m pro gun control, for various reasons, but that’s a whole different post!

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