In the wake of Sandy Hook, don't confuse mental illness with violence

mental health image

The tragic mass killing at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, is both heartbreaking and disturbing. We all ache and share the trauma of this unthinkable event. In the shock and grief, we are filled with questions. Some questions seek facts – what happened? Some questions seek the Divine – where was God? Some questions seek understanding – why did this happen?

In times of such pain and uncertainty we want answers sooner rather than later. We hope that perhaps answers will provide a little balm for the soul wound we all feel. In our urgency to know, we run the risk of being satisfied with simple and incomplete answers.

Mental illness such as a personality disorder and neurocognitive disorders such as Aspergers Syndrome (an Autism Spectrum Disorder) have been discussed extensively in media accounts of the Sandy Hook tragedy. In less formal conversations about the shooter,  I have heard people default to saying, “He was crazy.” It is understandable to default to mental health conclusions in our urgency to find relief in answers to impossible questions, but we must also consider how these mental health social narratives impact the vast majority of people with mental illness or neurocognitive disorders who are not violent.

If we arrive at the simple conclusion that “he was crazy” or had a mental illness and go no further in our thinking or understanding, then what we have done is to situate anyone with a mental illness as potentially or likely dangerous. It will result in the social construction of stigma, creating an environment ripe for discrimination, dismissal and violence against people who fight daily against mental illness.

In order to help with the conversation about the intersection of violence and mental health, here are some facts:

  • "…the vast majority of people who are violent do not suffer from mental illnesses” (American Psychiatric Association, 1994)
  • “People with mental illness are much more likely to be the victim of violence than the perpetrator.” (World Psychiatry. 2003 June; 2(2): 121–124)

In short, people who struggle against mental illness are not to be feared, but rather protected and advocated for. Here are a few tips on helping the conversation of mental health and violence.

  • Avoid simple answers that serve only to soothe our own anxieties, but do little by way of helping.
  • Put unhelpful words like “crazy” out of the social narratives of mass violence.
  • Engage in activities, organizations and relationships in such a way that promotes the mental, emotional, social and spiritual health of yourself and everyone around you. 

Posted by

Chris Gonzalez

Chris Gonzalez

Asst Professor - Psychology

Gonzalez joined the psychology and counseling faculty in Fall 2010 after completing his Ph.D. in Family Social Science from University of Minnesota. He teaches several courses in the MFT program. His research explores family and spiritual influences on positive youth development. He is also a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. [More]

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