An actor called him a lunatic, and newspapers and magazines called him a madman and deranged. And while it may have been tempting to use these words to describe the young man who killed six people because of his arrogant attitude of entitlement to women, Elliott Rodger’s videos and manifesto made clear that his problem was not his mental health, but rather his unbridled misogyny.
Using mental health slurs to describe people who are violent or objectionable is not only inaccurate, it also promotes stigma and damaging attitudes towards people with mental health problems. This is why describing rapists and murderers as crazy, psychos or nutters is dangerous as well as lazy.
It is these attitudes that prevent people with mental health diagnoses from getting on with their lives. They cause people in a leafy Sheffield suburb to actively object to a charity-run crisis house in their backyard on their street. The resulting prejudice prevents us from getting jobs and causes people to fear and loathe us. It makes people avoid seeking treatment because they are so afraid of the stigma that comes alongside the ‘mentally ill’ label. As an anonymous contributor to Fementalists wrote:
“For those of us who are mentally ill, however, it stays with us, stabs at us. Whenever we hear this kind of thing we’re getting the message we’re not to be accepted as we are, that we’re bad, wrong, to be mocked, or worse, dangerous. To me, it’s a constant message sent by society that we are unwelcome in it.”
The vast majority of people with mental health problems are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators, and 95% of murders are committed by people with no mental health diagnosis. However, whenever a killing makes the news, speculation about the suspect’s potential psychiatric state abound, not just in gossipy social media circles but in the mainstream press too.
The problem with abusers is not that they are “insane”. When we label violent and abusive men ‘crazy’, we fail to identify and address the real problems. In cases of domestic violence, rape and stalking, for instance, it is easy to call the perpetrators psychotic but, if we do so, we are missing the opportunity to recognise and tackle misogyny, entitlement and rape culture.
The use of mental health slurs as insults is unrelenting, and the undercurrent of unremitting microaggressions is exhausting. When I call myself mad and you use the same word to describe Jimmy Savile’s terrifying catalogue of abuse, I can only conclude that you think there is a parallel between the two. When somebody is diagnosed with psychosis and you call a perpetrator of vicious domestic violence ‘psychotic’, you are suggesting that you believe the person who is unwell is capable of the same cruelty and abuse.
We see news reports of violent misogyny and we might well get angry. We read accounts of domestic abuse and we may feel frightened and vulnerable. But resorting to disablist language to describe the perpetrators of these crimes makes it easy to ignore the problem, while piling stigma onto mental health service users that will limit our lives and encourage hate crimes and discrimination.
So, if somebody is brutal, call them brutal. If they are cruel, call them cruel. And what if an abuser or killer has a confirmed diagnosis of, say, psychosis or schizophrenia? Well, what if they have epilepsy? Or a broken leg? The likelihood is that their diagnosis bears little relationship to their violence. Assuming there is a connection with their impairment is submitting to dangerous stereotypes that cause palpable, daily problems for those with these diagnoses and issues.
Wait for the facts, don’t assume and never, ever try to diagnose somebody based on what you’ve read on the internet.
Philippa Willitts is a disabled feminist freelance writer in Sheffield. She has written for the Guardian, Independent, New Statesman and Channel 4 News websites and is part of The F-Word blogging collective. Follow her @PhilippaWrites.
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