Guest post by Mary Alvord, PhD, a psychologist in Rockville, Md.
It is human nature to make assumptions about tragedies like the one that happened on Friday in Connecticut, especially before all the data are in, and before a complete set of facts are available. But the quick act of jumping to conclusions could create even more unnecessary fear and prejudice.
This phenomenon is particularly relevant when explanations involving acts of violence are attributed to “mental illness.”
Words have power.
Words can stigmatize
On the negative side, the use of certain words and phrases may stereotype, stigmatize or promote incorrect conclusions about groups of people. People are shocked about what happened, and in that anger or disbelief, they use words that can imply an incorrect connection between a mental health condition and the commitment of a horrific crime. How often have you heard a shooter described as “crazed,” “lunatic” or a “nutjob”?
In the case of reported shooter Adam Lanza, we don’t yet know about the existence of a mental illness. We may never know. But using these words to describe him continue to perpetuate the notion that those with a mental illness are violent and should be feared. If we expect to reduce the stigma of mental health care, and increase the number of people who can benefit from it, we need to be careful about how anyone is described.
Assumptions can stigmatize
Assertions are always made after attacks that the shooter had a mental illness. In this case, recent reports made statements that he had Asperger’s Syndrome or a personality disorder. Firstly, we don’t know that this is true. Secondly, and most importantly, the insinuation that mental illness is associated with intentional violence can lead to the unwarranted fear that all people with developmental or mental health disorders are dangerous.
The unfortunate consequences of these assumptions are that those who suffer from short- or long-term mental health difficulties may isolate themselves, experience feelings of shame, and avoid seeking help.
Talking about facts can help us understand and grow
On the positive side, words can help to explain, provide accurate information and console. Helpful words and phrasing stick to the facts and provide descriptions and explanations. The proper use of words may help others understand that whereas grappling with uncertainty is difficult, it is far better than mislabeling or providing incorrect assumptions.
Fact: There is no causal connection between a diagnosis of autism or Asperger’s Syndrome, and planned violence against others.
Developmental disorders such as Asperger’s, and mental health disorders, such as anxiety and depression, show no causal relationship between the disorder and intentional violence toward others. To the contrary, most people with mental health disorders are more likely to be the victims of violence.
People with mental illness or developmental disorders may behave in different and even unique ways. The Guide for Reporting on Mental Illness reports that “the vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent … mental illness contributes very little to the overall rate of violence in the general population.”
Fact: When individuals with mental health disorders seek treatment, there is a high recovery rate.
Often, people with depression and anxiety demonstrate remarkable resilience in reaction to adversity and challenges they face. Moreover, resilience skills can be learned.
It is true that we need to challenge the stigma of mental illness to further encourage those people who need help to reach out for treatment. The recent tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, provides an opportunity to educate both public and the media that evidence-based mental health treatments are available and show promising results in regard to outcome.
Dr. Mary Alvord is a psychologist in Maryland who specializes in resilience and evidence-based practice. She is the 2013 president of the APA division for media psychology and technology. You can follow her on Twitter @drmalvord.
Photo by iamthetherapist (via Flickr)