Violence and mental illness: The canary in the coal mine

by Jamie Lutton

On May 30th, at Café Racer, Ian Stawicki, a mentally ill man, shot several people, then crossed town and killed a woman while he was stealing her car. He soon after this shot himself.
There has been great public outrage about these killings, most of the conversation  has centered around the easy availability of powerful handguns.  I have been thinking about this for several weeks, as I think this focus  is wrong, for several reasons.

The mentally ill are the “canary in the coal mine” of modern society. When a mentally ill person becomes violent, or more frequently commits suicide, they are playing out in a microcosm  the violence endemic in our society. As they are more susceptible to mental influence, they  act in a way that is only an exaggeration of the culture at large.
The lack of decent, affordable mental health care is a big issue as well. The culture of shame associated with acknowledging mental illness is itself shameful.  But most of all, our culture has a very violent fantasy life, as well as a violent and aggressive foreign policy.
Our television programs and video games are violent, and use violence to solve problems. This is so common a thing, that perhaps we never reflect on the effect this has on susceptible people.  There are murders and shootings in all cop and detective programs, and they are very popular. Movies with violence in them are very popular. Video games involve shooting to kill, in very realistic ways.
Our culture in the real world uses violence to solve problems. We have been at war in the Middle East for 10 years. Our president orders drones to kill enemies of  our country from the skies.  Even our police forces use stun guns to subdue people, using a new tool instead of voice persuasion or waiting people out. So the mentally ill, in particular those who have not been helped or rejected help, are swimming in a sea of violent images from seductive sources, in fantasy, fiction, and real life.       
When someone is deluded, a gun seems to be the right tool to solve a problem; that is what they have learned from the culture.  This, most of time, results in suicide, but now and then someone who is mentally ill is angry and deluded enough to attack family or strangers.

I strongly support two measures. One, make mental health care affordable for everyone. This is of high priority. Make it easier for families to have someone either helped or even committed.
Two, take away the shame of being mentally ill. When someone gets a diagnosis of manic depression (or schizophrenia), the first reaction of friends, loved ones or family is to either pull away or deny the problem.  Manic depression has a strong genetic component, so the denial and panic family members show is part of this.  Family members often think that they will have to be treated, too, so they deny the diagnosis, and reject the answer.  Often the mentally ill are abandoned by their families.
Being mentally ill is to be the lowest of the low in our culture. The worst curse that can be shrieked out is that ‘you are crazy!’. When it is true, the level of self hatred can be unbearable.
And most doctors do not know how to deliver the news to a mentally ill person. After telling someone that they have to take pills for the rest of their life, they usually tell the patient that they should never marry or have kids, because they are unfit, as the illness is passed on genetically.
This is often wrapped in medical language, but the message is clear.  Then they turn the person loose with prescription and a general vague suggestion that the avoid coffee and alcohol.  Few people can afford to be seen by an expert on this illness, who can offer more help and support than the average doctor.
Facing this, half the people diagnosed walk away from modern medicine, choosing to self medicate using alcohol or illegal drugs. They deny the diagnosis, and are often angry and reject further help. It is more socially acceptable to be a drug addict or drunk than to be taking medication for mania, and less shameful.   And most people want to be sane, and will lie to themselves to cling to the illusion of sanity.
And when someone is really ill, ideating violence and raving, there is no place for family members to take them. Unless they are in imminent danger to themselves, like threatening suicide, or are putting people in immediate danger, the State has no place to help them. Except, perhaps, to put them in jail. A great many jail inmates are there because they are mentally ill.  President Ronald Reagan, to ‘save money’, shut down the big mental hospitals in the 1980’s.   The mentally ill often ended up roaming the streets as homeless vagabonds.
This man had family who cared for him. He had had a girlfriend. But they were not given a clear path on how to help him. And as this illness has symptoms of rage and paranoia mixed with euphoria,  he did not seek out help himself. The euphoria of mania gives the manic depressive false, fleeting comfort and confidence, that most medication takes away.  And the stigma may have held him back,  I do not know if it did in his case.
When we make help for the mentally ill not a public good, paid for by the public, everyone suffers.  Not only by random murders like these, but by suicides and despair. The mentally ill’s lives are forever stunted, and they rarely reach their full potential. And we all are the poorer for this.
So, a fairly easy step would be to make mental health  treatment more affordable.. Families who have manic depressive members should be alerted, as they are much more likely themselves to have alcohol dependence and drug dependence, as well as a strong tendency to depression.  But the most difficult change we should make is to reduce the cult of violence in our popular media.
We worry about children finding sexual content on TV or the Internet, not noticing the deadening effect of violent entertainment seen over and over.  And the social affect of  endless war abroad cheapens the use of violence here. The rise of the stun gun by the police nationally  happened in the decade we have been at war, the last decade, and I don’t think this is a coincidence.
And finally, let us remove the stigma from being different. We are working now to protect gay and lesbian youth from being abused in the public school system, we should work to protect the kids with early onset of mental illness. Often this is triggered at an early age, when the child is in an unhappy or stressful home, such a home where there is emotional violence as well as physical violence. Or if they have parents with a drinking problem.  If we can reach out and help one group, let us put these kids on the list, too. And treatment that is started early is more likely to be successful.


  1. Thank you for this insightful post. I have long seen that our violent stories, movies, and TV promote personal violence as a way to solve problems, and that an unacknowledged cost of war abroad is increased violence at home.


Post a Comment