Most Americans are aware of the stereotype that people with mental illness are more violent and dangerous than the general population. Everyone has seen or heard of a slasher film where the “slasher” is an escaped or released psychiatric patient on a murder spree. In the last decade, due to multiple high-profile mass shootings, discussions surrounding mental illness and violence have become especially prominent not only in entertainment media, but news media as well. According to a 2014 study, news media frequently blame mass shootings on what they perceive to be the mental illness of the shooter, further stigmatizing people with mental illness as violent and dangerous.
After reading upsetting news articles on violence and mental illness, I became worried that mass shootings would also impact Congressional debates on mental illness and mental healthcare. For my master’s research at Purdue, I set out to uncover how Congress Members “frame” mental illness. I examined the frames used every time a Congress Member mentioned mental illness on the house or senate floor or in a hearing between 2013 and 2015.
Initially, I hypothesized that adolescents and veterans would be framed in a positive way. I assumed Congress Members would discuss their treatment needs, arguing that these populations deserve treatment—that is, children can’t help being ill, and veterans are deserving of care due to their service to the United States. I thought the case for adults would be different. I hypothesized Congress Members would frame the general population of adults with mental illness as dangerous, especially in the aftermath of mass shootings and blame these acts on the perceived mental illness of the shooter. I was only half right. To my surprise, the treatment needs of everyone were discussed frequently, even so-called “dangerous” adults. However, often the dangerousness of adults was used as the justification to improve care.
For example, while discussing a recent mass shooting, Republican Senator Bill Cassidy argued that the event was “a reminder of the long road we must take to reform our mental health system.” He explained, “Too many innocent lives are being taken in senseless attacks…The common denominator in these tragedies is all too often untreated mental illness.” (C-SPAN, July 27, 2015).
According to another politician, “In all of these mass shooting incidents, it appears that the perpetrators had some significant mental health issues.” He argued, “we have to have a better system that finds people in advance before they act out their violent fantasies.” (C-SPAN, Angus King, October 8, 2015).
Those with mental illness are not always viewed as deserving of treatment. In doing so, their obvious humanity and right to be healthy are ignored by the very decision-makers and policies that could help – rather than isolate or punish – them. Frequently, they are viewed as needing treatment, not for their own benefit, but to protect others. Non-veteran adults were framed as a population in need of treatment, not because they necessarily deserved it, but because treatment could prevent violent acts. In contrast, veterans were seen as deserving and entitled to treatment because of their service to our country. Children were also viewed positively and deserving of care.
Discourse on mental illness, violence, and mass shootings is not only found in news and entertainment media, but Congress as well, indicating that the stigma of mental illness and violence will continue to persist in the future. Congress Members should improve America’s mental health system, but the justification for doing it, should not be that individuals with mental illness are dangerous. Individuals with mental illness deserve treatment because they have the right to be healthy, the same as anyone with a physical illness.
I was happy to find that Congress Members are arguing to improve mental healthcare, but upset at the justification for it. The frames surrounding mental illness and mental healthcare need to change. Instead of arguing for improved care based on the dangerousness of untreated mental illness, Congress Members should emphasize the right of all people to lead happy, healthy, and successful lives.
The views expressed in this post are the author’s views alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of Young Minds Advocacy as an organization.