Post No.: 0444
Whenever there’s a murder case involving a suspect with a speculated mental health problem, some news outlets start to spew out unverified conjectures that are emotive, fear-mongering and stereotypical. They don’t even always state what exact mental health problem a suspect has or is presumed to have, and sometimes they don’t seem to care – as if they think that all mental health problems are the same and are associated with ‘mad’ and dangerous people.
The public then takes all of this at face value, spreads and adds to the gossip themselves, then the media doesn’t chase up on their conjectures, and therefore the public is left to assume that they were true because no alternative hypotheses have been presented. People also tend to want a simple explanation for things, and someone’s personal mental defects are easier to blame than society-wide factors, such as gross levels of inequality or inadequate mental health care funding, because this would mean that we’re all collectively partly responsible for these outcomes too.
A large part of the media creates, perpetuates and reinforces stereotyped images of groups of all kinds, they don’t always verify their conjectures, and will seldom retract them when they’ve not been proved or even when they’ve been disproved; unless pressured to. This is because, whereas normally in law the onus is on the accuser to prove the accused guilty, not on the accused to prove him/herself innocent of an accusation – the media aren’t held to such standards in many countries, and those who’ve had false and harmful statements published about them must prove that the media outlet acted deliberately and negligently. Only the rich and/or famous can usually afford to sue the media for libel, slander or defamation too (although in some countries the bar is set higher for public figures to prove that a media outlet demonstrated a reckless disregard for the truth).
We must always assess the statistical base rates before judging whether a particular attribute is a likely causal factor for committing terrorism. And here, the vast majority of people with mental disorders do not commit any terrorism or other crimes – just like the vast majority of males do not commit crimes even though the vast majority of prison inmates are male. By far most murderers and terrorists are people without mental disorders too, but those relatively few who are (or are suspected of having one – any one) are salient and are therefore cognitively available, which make them media story magnets. Other – far more pertinent – details, such as their toxic surrounding culture or their socio-economic disadvantage, become glossed-over footnotes just so that the simple story of a person with a mental health problem who committed a crime can be made into a headline. They’re apparently all ‘insane’ villains like the Joker(!)
But isn’t a mentally-disordered, psychotic, obsessive, depressed and/or sociopathic person often a victim too? A victim of a society that doesn’t properly understand, take care of, or take into account, the mentally vulnerable but instead spreads propaganda about them, discriminates against them and treats them badly even when particular individuals haven’t done anything personally wrong? You cannot judge a person just because they’re quiet or a loner too.
By following and perpetuating the mainstream stereotypes of the mentally ill, too many people who don’t know that they’re under-educated (precisely because they’re not educated enough to know what they’re missing) are guided by crude and often totally misplaced fears and assumptions. Having a mental disorder doesn’t necessarily mean that a person will talk nonsense, is ‘a bit crazy’, is unintelligent or cannot be relied upon regarding whatever they think or say (e.g. as an eyewitness or fount of percipience). It firstly depends on what type of mental disorder someone has because there’s a vast array of different individual conditions and severities. It’s akin to believing that physically disordered people cannot walk – well yes if it concerns their legs and it’s severe enough, but not if it concerns other parts like, perhaps, their hands. Two people with the same diagnoses can sometimes experience different symptoms too.
There are many famous or scholarly people, who have contributed to the arts or sciences, who have various mental health problems, yet are evidently highly intelligent and shouldn’t be dismissed as ‘mad’ or ‘befuddled’ whenever they speak, even if we might disagree with what they say. Those with depression have, on average, very decent IQs – thinking is crucial for intelligence, but it becomes a problem if people over-think or ruminate. It’d be society’s loss if society doesn’t educate itself properly about mental health or help sufferers. All of these crude stereotypes and the stigma against the mentally ill don’t make it easy for sufferers to seek help too. Labels are useful so that affected people can receive support but we don’t need to focus on them. Like with absolutely anyone else – focus on their numerous abilities and strengths rather than their apparent flaws or vulnerable weaknesses. We could go on about how human beings as a species are slow, fragile, have small working memories, limited attention spans, etc. but we could focus on what they can do instead.
Videogames, especially in the horror genre, are currently generally atrocious for depicting mentally ill characters as clichés. ‘Insanity’ has been a lazy trope for the character designs of villains in fictional stories for ages. Even when playable characters have mental issues, they’re frequently written so that they descend until they’re hopelessly gone in the end. When someone turns bad, it’s because they’ve turned mad, or vice-versa(!) Thus such characters tend to evoke fear and ostracism rather than sympathy and understanding. Psychiatric hospitals are still typically portrayed as dark and hellish lunatic asylums too, which discourages people from seeking help.
So we must always remember that most of these games are about entertainment rather than education, and that means they rely on dramatisation. A lot of it is just lazy writing to tap cheaply into our primitive emotions. Some games and movies are better than others though.
Too many news reports, movies, documentaries, etc. concentrate on just the perpetrators’ motives, mindsets, personalities and genetics, and indeed these are important factors – but they’re not the only contributing factors. Other factors include their backstories and present circumstances, their surrounding culture, influences, and how other people treat or have treated them.
When we investigate all these things, we can (although admittedly with a hindsight bias) usually see that these people have or had vulnerabilities that affected their life paths. Yet even if we get to understand their very tragic vulnerabilities and traumatic histories, few people take the perspective of ‘if only we as a society collectively understood better, raised people better and treated people more compassionately – particularly those who may be more vulnerable or considered ‘strange’ – then maybe this crime could’ve been prevented’. Post No.: 0421 also highlighted that mental health is the responsibility of collective efforts.
The victims and good people absolutely deserve the most attention after a crime. But with an aim towards helping to minimise similar future violent crimes, we must also look at the wider lessons that should be learnt from such cases too. It’s not to say that this is the panacea because different criminals have different individual motives, and some vulnerable people are easier to nudge onto a better path than others, but reducing hate, fear and prejudice on and from all sides will help because fewer people will feel pushed into thinking that committing a (mass) violent act is the only way to make a point. Science helps us to understand that many criminals are victims (of a flawed system or society) too.
We cannot turn back time to prevent the harms already caused but we can possibly help prevent any other potentially vulnerable persons from going down the same perceived desperate paths in the future. However, people (as people supposedly without mental problems themselves) instead often contribute to push vulnerable people towards a snapping point even more with their hate, fear and vengefulness against such stereotyped groups of ‘freaks’ – their words, behaviours and attitudes push these people towards the wrong path or a divided path. We instead need to be the bigger person and encourage everyone onto a better and united path through empathy rather than explicit or implicit discrimination.
A criminal and a crime is just the output of a long and complex chain of causes and effects, inputs and processes, of a disharmonious society. So blaming only the criminals is akin to blaming only the messengers of the status of a community. Criminals, especially of systemic or recurrent crimes, are basically giving us feedback that the system is going wrong somewhere. We can deal with the individual criminals but the problem won’t stop unless the system fundamentally improves. It’s like it won’t actually solve the root problem if we just remove the warning indicator light on a dashboard, or it won’t actually fix the hole in a radiator if we just capture the liquid pouring out.
Peace cannot be achieved via the actions of one person alone but via the actions of everybody who works for peace. Likewise, conflict, hate and prejudice involve the actions of everybody who promotes or employs conflict, hate and prejudice, not just the person who violently snaps at the end of this chain of events. Different people have different vulnerabilities to aggression, violence or whatever – but evil is not inevitable; it is not fully genetically penetrant (fated). We could stay on our high-horses and believe that the perpetrator was most to blame, but even if that were true – they wouldn’t be completely to blame. For absolutely everyone – evil isn’t genetically fated and there are enough things we can feasibly do to ensure that even the most genetically vulnerable person isn’t pushed or pulled towards resorting to violent resolutions against fellow beings. People need empathy, not naïve high-horses.
Commentators may even attempt to retroactively diagnose a specific mental illness label for a criminal, yet still feel reluctant to express any sympathy towards them, even though no one chooses, earns or deserves their risk alleles or other risk factors, particularly during their upbringing, and all that follows path dependently from that. It’s just luck. Proven-guilty criminals must still be punished for their community’s sake, for practical reasons, and factors like tests of compos mentis, premeditation, intention or neglect matter regarding the level or type of punishment appropriate, yet luck is no fair basis for moral desert.
And, of course, the prevention of crime is more crucial than punishments after crimes, hence this is the overall message – how can we all, no matter whom or where we are, by being more aware of our own behaviours towards everyone else, help prevent vulnerable people from committing acts of violence down the line in the first place? And since no one knows for sure who is vulnerable, we would be wise to treat every person we interact with, directly or indirectly, with consideration and respect.
Many humans (as with many other animals) however, unfortunately seem to particularly pick on those who are already down, which is so low and primitive for a supposedly highly-advanced species. It seems like, for some people, it’s natural to deliberately bully, ostracise and push mentally-disordered or vulnerable people, culturally-deemed ‘odd’ people, or people who otherwise don’t seem to fit into what’s currently considered to be the surrounding ‘norm’, ever more into the margins – thus pushing them away until they turn towards harmful or maladaptive thoughts and perhaps snap against society in retaliation. If people are ‘weird’, mentally ill or suspected as being so (or even if they’re not) then stop pushing them! Stop creating a potential problem down the line for them, for you and for society as a whole – otherwise you and we will all be partly responsible for the consequences.
Treat everyone with love and respect though and we’ll reap the rewards of this instead.