On “Mental Illness”

Commenter mesh at Pharyngula boiled it down into a three word trope:

Following every reported massacre the immediate response from people is essentially a “No True Human” whereby they seek to relegate the perpetrator to some subhuman category in order to relieve themselves of the stress of considering that a human being could actually make the choice to kill, for which mental illness fits their aims well. It’s a lot more comfortable for them to simply lump this guy into a group widely stigmatized as being the broken, dangerous dregs of society.

“No True Human,” a brilliant riff on the “No True Scotsman” fallacy, runs like this:

  1. Whoever committed that horrendous act must be mentally ill
  2. We know this because no normal person would ever do anything like this
  3. because in order to do something like this you’d have to be mentally ill
  4. so therefore GOTO 1

As mesh said, it’s a way of distancing yourself comfortably from the people who do that kind of thing. It’s a way of denying that you have demons.

Note that few people who make this argument ever have a more precise diagnosis at hand. When they do, as with the recent flurry of autism stories, it’s often a disability that would actually get in the way of committing the crime at issue — as if newspaper stories started to postulate a link between Lou Gehrig’s Disease and becoming a cat burglar.

Mainly what the trope does is reassure you that the story is just that. You’re “normal.” You’re not connected to the person who committed the crime. There are “normals” who drive cars and use ATMs and pay taxes and use the drive-thru, and there are the “mentally ill” by definition.

There’s just one particular form of mental illness that’s been found to be shared by a significant number of spree killers. It’s depression. At least a tenth of people in the U.S. have it, or have had it, myself among them. And there’s no conclusive causal link between the depression and spree killing.

You are not normal.

There is no normal. You may well be happy and well adjusted. I hope you are. I often am as well. But every single person is neurologically distinct. Normal is semantic, an arbitrary boundary on the bell curve between peak and long tail. Mentally ill, if it means anything at all, just means landing on the wrong side of that arbitrary line.

We’re your bankers and your bosses, your crossing guards and lawyers, your grocery checkout clerks and neighbors and friends. We’re your children and your parents. We’re your teachers and your first responders and your local government representatives.

You are, in fact, surrounded. Who’s normal now?

Pinning horrible violence on some unspecified “mental illness” is an insult to those of us who live our lives. Thousands of us make the world a better place for every one who hurts someone. We work to prevent violence ten thousand times as often as we cause it.

Even the most seriously disabled of us, the hallucinating and voice-hearing and frightened, do more good than harm. One person famously followed orders from his neighbor’s dog to murder people. You never hear about the people who said “No! Bad dog!” By blaming “mental illness,” you do more harm than most of us will ever do to you.