The wrong conversation about mental health and violence

January 24, 2013

Whenever a mass shooting or other act of horrific violence occurs, the mainstream media, political pundits, and members of the public are quick to jump to one of two conclusions—the perpetrator was either autistic or had a psychiatric disability. Aside from the obvious prejudice against disabled people that underpins either assumption, both of these conclusions are not merely wrong, but incredibly irresponsible and unacceptably dangerous. The vast majority of autistic people and those with psychiatric disabilities are not only nonviolent, but much more likely than non-disabled people to be the victims of violent crime than the perpetrators of it. When autistic people or people with psychiatric disabilities do commit violent crimes, disability is rarely a factor in the commission of the crime. These insinuations place autistic people and those with psychiatric disabilities at extreme risk for further victimization.

For this reason, I am deeply disappointed in President Obama’s plan to reduce gun violence. Do I condemn violence? Of course. Yet, when public discourse is rampant with both overt and implied messages that there is some connection between mental disability and violence, that most violence is committed by the mentally disabled, or that mentally disabled people are more likely to be violent than the non-disabled, it is impossible for me to remain silent in the name of unity or cooperation. I am morally obligated to speak against ableism cloaked by the façade of good intentions.

We could imprison every mentally disabled person in the United States, and violence of all kinds would still continue at the same rates. We could vastly improve access to and availability of services and supports for those with psychiatric disabilities, and rates of violence would also not decrease. There is, therefore, absolutely no reason to include discussion of the (admittedly dismal) state of mental health services as part of a discussion on reducing gun violence, except to pacify public sentiment that conflates violence with mental deviance. Disclaimers that the majority of mentally disabled people are not violent do little to decrease or minimize the impact of emphasizing mental health services as a key component of a plan to address violence.

The fact that the Obama administration is centering the discussion about gun violence around the issue of mental health services suggests that it is pandering to the troubling assumption that only someone who is mentally disabled is capable of committing heinous crimes. This assumption is based on societal prejudices against disabled people, which will only be increased by this type of rhetoric.

Furthermore, while there are genuine concerns both by people with psychiatric disabilities and allies about access to appropriate and desired support services, one devastating consequence of this type of public discourse is increased stigma against mental disability and higher likelihood of mentally disabled people developing internalized ableism and thus not seeking supports or services that they might have otherwise wanted to find. Also underpinning much of this rhetoric is the unspoken assumption (taken for granted) that the appropriate response to mental disability is “treatment” in the medicalized sense, rather than removal of societal, legal, and attitudinal barriers to full inclusion and accessibility.

It is imperative for both policymakers and the public to recognize the dangers inherent in suggestions that only mentally disabled people are capable of committing violent crimes. It is necessary that we develop theories, policies, and practices that challenge the systemic ableism that simultaneously denounces and endangers the disabled. We ought to condemn violence, not behavior that is simply unusual or inconvenient. It should never be acceptable to juxtapose a conversation about reducing violence with a conversation about targeting an entire group of people—particularly a historically marginalized population.

There are many conversations about disability that need to be happening, including discussions both about improving current service provision by public and private entities and about reconstructing societal conceptions of disability and the disabled experience. But it is never appropriate to politicize those conversations while simultaneously perpetrating ableist notions about disabled people for the sake of political expediency.

If we are to actually discuss the connection between disability and violence, why don’t we address the systematic abuse, torture, and killings of disabled people across the U.S.?

Hate crimes against the disabled are rarely tracked and almost never included in discussions about crimes targeting people for actual or presumed membership in particular groups, but it is rampant and pervasive. Unscrupulous service providers and educators enact violence against disabled children placed in their care and under their supervision, often but not always in the name of treatment or therapy, and they are exculpated by the law. Parents and caregivers of disabled children and adults abuse and murder their charges, and they are exonerated in a court of public opinion that perceives them as heroic martyrs suffering because of a “difficult” child. Disabled people are raped, literally and figuratively, when officers of the law refuse to acknowledge violations of their bodies as prosecutable crimes.

If we must investigate the relationship between psychiatric disabilities and violence, we ought to investigate the attitudes that permit these unforgivable crimes. Why isn’t that conversation happening?

Lydia Brown
Lydia Brown is a queer and disabled activist and writer whose work focuses on violence against multiply-marginalized disabled people. Lydia is president and co-founder of the Washington Metro Disabled Students Collective and co-president of TASH New England, while also serving on the Board of Directors of the Autism Women’s Network and the Massachusetts Developmental Disabilities Council. Lydia works as a policy analyst at the Autistic Self Advocacy Network. Additionally, Lydia has served two terms as Undersecretary for Disability Affairs with the Georgetown University Students Association. Previously, Lydia was the 2012 Patricia Morrissey Disability Policy Fellow at the Institute for Educational Leadership. In 2013, Lydia was honored by the White House as a Champion of Change for disability rights. Most recently, Lydia received the Washington Peace Center's Empowering the Future Youth Activist Award for 2014. Lydia’s work has been published in Criptiques, Torture in Healthcare Settings, Tikkun, Black Girl Dangerous, hardboiled magazine, and The Washington Post.

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Brenda Rothman

Very true, Lydia. People tend to look at these crimes individually, searching for an answer – usually psychological – to determine why it happened. But we miss the larger pattern – the social norms that allow inhumanity to fellow humans to happen on a continuing basis.

John Kelly

Great piece, Lydia! I really appreciate your inclusion of violence AGAINST people with disabilities, and why aren’t we addressing that issue of violence. It’s just so much easier to blame people from an oppressed group than to look at everyone.

Shain Neumeier

For those who want solutions to our national “mental health problem” (which I would tend to define rather differently than most people…), here are a few ideas:

-Make it a given that people can voluntarily get treatment not only on their budgets, but also on their terms (and by “their terms” I mean those of the person in question and not a proxy assumed to speak for them without their consent).
-Make emergency mental health care community-based rather than institutional by default.
-Establish voluntary supports – both treatment-related and more general – in the community for people so to avoid getting to a crisis point in the first place.
-Change workplace environments, schools and public spaces to be truly accessible to people with psychiatric and developmental disabilities and provide meaningful opportunities in larger society.
-Expand public literacy about patients’ rights in mental health settings and how to enforce and defend them.
-Include information about the social model of disability and other aspects of disability theory in provider training and educational curriculum to teach them to differentiate well-being from compliance and normalcy for their own sakes and act accordingly.

Many people will seek out help that they need once the help isn’t worse than whatever problem they’re facing, and eliminating societal barriers and other major stressors will go a long way toward improving people’s mental health.

Will this end mass murders? Who knows, as there’s hardly conclusive proof that the same people who would be identified (before the fact…) as having a psychiatric disability are those that commit atrocities. Will it reduce violence in society? Yes, substantially, against those of us who have disabilities.


Hello, Georgetown Voice,

I am so happy to read fellow Hoyas speaking out in defense of people with mental illnesses. Given all the hype in the news blaming us with extreme violence, this is refreshing.

I’m a GU grad ’83. I lived high up in the eight floor of Harbin Hall. As a sophomore In 1979 I was hospitalized with schizophrenia at Georgetown University Hospital Psychiatric Unit for five weeks. I went home for a year and a half, then returned and graduated.

Truthout, a well-known independent news outlet, recently published an Op-Ed I wrote opposing the mental health gun check database. http://truth-out.org/speakout/item/13930-opposing-a-mental-health-gun-check-registry

The long version of the piece can be found at my blog: http://rewardandconsent.blogspot.com/2013/01/opposing-mental-health-database-for-gun.html

I’m Dave Jersey in Facebook, @RewardConsent in Twitter, and rewardandconsent@yahoo.com. I’d love to speak with some fellow Hoyas on the subject of violence among people with mental health challenges.

Karin Wulf

Great article on a crucial topic. I’d like to read more (I feel I started to see a thread on this somewhere) about how a moral understanding of evil, that is, society’s efforts to understand evil, has become an inclination to see evil acts as the products of a disordered mind. I think somewhere in here we have to make more room for something the early moderns understood quite well: there is evil in the world. Because seeing evil acts as mental illness makes, as you point out, mental illness and thus the mentally ill, the problem.

Lydia Brown

Conflating health with morality, or even neurotypicality with morality, is a dangerous but increasingly common fallacy.