Donald Trump has decided to brand recent mass shootings in America as a ‘mental health’ problem. Whatever your views on US politics it’s concerning for mental health professionals to hear mental illness casually associated with violence. Negative stereotyping fuels misunderstanding and fear and glosses over the fact that people with a mental illness are much more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators.
Why does society sometimes demonise the mentally ill? Is it because we struggle to understand ‘difference’? Are we still influenced by the past when the depressed and anxious were called ‘hysterical’ and ‘mad’? Or are we in denial about the vulnerable parts of our own psyche that we prefer not to think about? It’s always easier to see the problem as being ‘out there’ in someone else, rather than looking at our own part in things.
Where there is mental illness there will be social as well as individual factors. Poverty, discrimination and powerlessness provide a fertile soil for feelings of alienation and disturbing thoughts to flourish. So what can we do? As therapists we start from a place of compassionate attention to troubled states of mind and body. Sometimes our politicians will voice this compassion and sometimes they won’t. But each of us has the power to speak from a place of understanding rather than fear.