Bigotry Against the Mentally Ill Cannot Solve Bigotry Against Muslims

*Originally published in Psychology Today. Republished in The Daily Banter.

– “Orlando may be strongest example yet showing how mental illness is ignored as factor when mass shooter is non-white” – Glen Greenwald after Orlando shootings.

– “Every country has homophobia and mental illness. Not every country has guns.” – Gary Younge, Editor-at-large for The Guardian, after Orlando shootings.

– “If we have all these weapons around, what do you think is going to happen? A certain percentage of the country is crazy!… The nuts in the country, we’re just giving it to them and saying “go ahead, shoot us all.” – Cenk Uyghur after San Bernardino shootings.

Another week, another Islamic terrorist attack. Another terrorist attack, another wave of obfuscation and denial. Whilst these atrocities have been followed by a number of daft excuses and diversions, the recent progressive trend of scapegoating the mentally ill is of particular concern to me. Istanbul, Orlando, San Bernardino; Each have been followed by snap psychiatric diagnoses and unsubstantiated claims of how they led to the act of violence. Time and time again, Twitterers are playing doctor in ways that make Dr Oz look like a reliable source of medical advice and Frasier an actual psychiatrist.

– “When a man blows himself up, it’s not simply “terrorism”. It’s SUICIDE. The problem isn’t Islam. The problem is mental health.” – Craig Considine after Ataturk Airport bombings.

Whilst working in psychiatry, I don’t ever remember my patients yelling “Allahu Akbar” and murdering as many people as possible when attempting to end their own life. One doesn’t need to be a shrink to know when it comes to suicide, deciding whether to swallow a bottle of pills alone in a bathtub or detonate a vest full of nails and ball bearings on a crowded bus is not a ‘tomayto’-‘tomahto’, coin-flip decision.

Out of desperation to protect Islam from any criticism, the Regressive Left – a section of the political left that tolerates illiberal doctrines of Islam for the sake of multiculturalism – are now using human shields. Many are concerned all Muslims will be demonised following such tragedies, but in reaction they throw the mentally ill under the bus with irony so potent it should burst a blood vessel.

Yes, moderate Muslims are too often painted with the same brush as jihadists, but people with mental illness are no more monochromatic than the Muslim world. Blanket statements about mental illness are not only unsubstantiated in many cases of terrorism, these charges tend to be made without distinction or clarification: No mention of what type of mental illness; No mention of how it specifically contributed to the atrocity; No mention of the proportion of sufferers with said mental illness who commit such violent acts; No mention of how it could be prevented in the future. Mental illness is simply a red herring – a pawn in this infantilizing game of political correctness that sees concern for Muslims trump all other groups in society, including my patients.

Stigma of mental illness has improved greatly in the last two decades, yet in a spectacularly asymmetrical fashion. Whilst the blame bubble has largely been popped by the needle of advancing neurosciences – providing us with the redundant reminder that mental illness is ‘just like any other illness’ – desire for social distance from psychiatric patients has remained stubbornly stagnant.

Recently we’ve learnt that a great deal of this desire for distance springs not from notions of blame for having a psychiatric disorder, but fear. Mental illness has had a long and unhappy association with violence, unpredictability and incomprehensibility, and sadly it continues to this day. A national survey revealed almost two-thirds of Americans think people with schizophrenia are likely to act violently toward someone else, while one-third think that people with major depression are likely to do so. Another study found the proportion of Americans who hold such beliefs nearly doubled between 1950 and 1996.

In reality, mental illness is a poor predictor of violence. The majority of people who are violent do not suffer from mental illnesses, with only three to five percent of violent crimes attributed to people living with mental illnesses. As a group, mentally ill people are only slightly more likely to commit a violent act; Three to five per cent of the general population compared to five per cent of bipolar and eight per cent of schizophrenia sufferers. In fact, they are far more likely to be the victims of violence, at a rate eleven times higher than the general population.

So a predominant job of mental health advocates today has shifted from dowsing misperceptions of blame and shame to quelling fears of violence and gross unpredictability. The importance of this project is hard to overstate. By analogy, throughout history leprosy has been highly stigmatised – a divine curse for past sins. When leprosy was discovered to be caused not by the gods but bacterial infection, stigma and segregation paradoxically increased due to fear of catching the disease. In a similar fashion, misperceptions of violence have condemned people with mental illness as our modern day lepers – perpetuated every time virtue-signallers storm the web announcing presumptive diagnoses after shootings and suicide bombings.

In response, however, I would be foolish to assert all acts of violence have nothing to do with psychosis or depression. People would be rightly skeptical if psychiatrists reacted to every mass shooting by exonerating any contribution of mental illness. Without intellectually separating the mentally ill who are dangerous from those who are not, we encourage a view of psychiatric illness as a homogenous force that should be feared.

Sadly, this is precisely the problem occurring in much of the discussion surrounding Islam today. By failing to name and isolate Islamism and Jihadism, we help manufacture a Populist Right that hear all voices of Islam as one. As Maajid Nawaz has said, “They will go on to blame all versions of Islam and every Muslim, and their frustration at not being able to talk about the problem will give in to rage, as it has done”.

So mental illness could be the mirror by which the Regressive Left sees the nature of their errors in real time. Many would be horrified to think they were defaming all psychiatric sufferers, yet to reactively deny a problem with violence exists at all would only deepen this hole. Rather, by calibrating our language to address the minority, we buttress the rights and interests of the majority.

Our response to cases of bigotry against Muslims cannot be bigotry against people with mental illness. Continually saying terrorism has nothing to do with Islam is not only false, but lynching the mentally ill amplifies one of the most important facets of mental illness stigma today: fear. It is only when we are honest about what contributes to acts of terrorism – whether it be certain interpretations of Islam, a subset of mental illness, or both – can we empower the majority of Muslims and psychiatric patients who do not pose a threat to society.

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