Perceptions of mental illness at the core of unhelpful assumptions

Netta Kaplan, Staff Writer

As soon as news of the March 24 Germanwings crash in the Alps reached the media, speculations over the reason for the crash started to emerge. A mechanical failure? An attack? Once the pilot Andreas Lubitz’s history of mental illness came to light, the rumors took a different yet predictable turn, painting him as a deranged and unstable man whose depression drove him to take the lives of 150 people, including his own.

Lubitz certainly wasn’t mentally healthy, but this emphasis on his mental illness and the concurrent stigmatization of other forms as leading to violent and erratic behavior are indicative of a larger problem in the way our society perceives mental illness.

It’s been pointed out before that perpetrators of violent attacks and murders are described in the media depending on race or religion–African Americans are often portrayed as thugs, Muslims as terrorists, and white people as mentally ill.

There’s no question that racial profiling is racist, but it’s also inaccurate. Looking at the FBI summary of terrorist incidents in the United States between 1980 and 2005, less than 10% were committed by Islamic extremists.

Just as it’s clear that not all Muslims are terrorists and not all terrorists are Muslim, it should be clear that mental illness does not go hand-in-hand with violence. ”

— Netta Kaplan

Controlling for other factors like substance abuse, the only arena in which mentally ill people have significantly higher rates of violence is suicide.

And just as we should combat the atmosphere of Islamophobia that leads to Muslims being labelled terrorists, we should also try to dispose of the association between mental illness and violence. Not only is it untrue, but it scares people away from seeking treatment and stepping forward to raise awareness and leads to low-self esteem and feelings of hopelessness.

Mental illness is neither scarce nor dangerous — in fact, over half of the population will be diagnosed with some kind of mental disorder (including anxiety, mood, impulse-control, and substance disorders) sometime during their lifetimes. The vast majority of these people, even those with more severe disorders like schizophrenia, will never commit a violent act in relation to their illness.

Rather than relegate mental illness to a precursor of violence and fear those suffering from mental illness, the community needs to reevaluate the perception of mental illness. People with mental illness are people like anyone else, and they deserve help and compassion, not stigma and exclusion.