When a gunman opened fire in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater during a midnight showing of a Batman movie this July, my stepsisters were sitting in the theater next door. Bullets came through the wall into their theater, where at least one person was killed and others were wounded. They escaped unharmed but badly shaken.
Then, a few days after a Labor Day weekend visit to my aunt and uncle in Louisville - including a Sunday worship service at their church - a man allegedly shot and killed two people at a homeowners association meeting in the church. My cousin was sitting in the same large room, on the other side of a partition, participating in a women’s Bible study. She and the rest of her group escaped the room safely - again, shaken but unharmed.
Obviously, such shootings hit close to home when family members are in danger. But for me, they hit close to home for another reason too. In both cases - as it usually does - the media quickly emphasized the mental health history of the alleged shooter. And because my mother has schizophrenia, I’m sensitive to the way such portrayals reinforce fear of people with mental illness.
Obviously, anyone who is considering or planning to commit mass murder is disturbed in some way. Something has been seriously disrupted in that person. But that doesn’t mean the person is mentally ill, as the case of Anders Breivik illustrates. And it doesn’t mean people with mental illness, or a history of treatment for mental health, are violent.
Did you know that people with mental illness are generally no more violent than the general population? Statistically, it’s true. As with the general population, substance abuse does increase tendencies toward violence, but mental illness itself does not make people significantly more prone to violence than the rest of the population. In fact, according to the U. S. Surgeon General’s office, “there is very little risk of violence or harm to a stranger from casual contact with an individual who has a mental disorder … the overall contribution of mental disorders to the total level of violence in society is exceptionally small.”
Yet with our sensational media coverage and quick stereotypes, people tend to believe that their neighbors with mental illness are ticking time bombs, violent criminals just waiting for the right time to attack.
The media’s emphasis on a person’s history of mental illness is meaningless. A full 25 percent of the U. S. population has a history of diagnosable mental illness. And many more of us have a history of treatment for mental health, considering all our visits to counselors. It’s not unusual in any way to have a history of treatment for mental health, yet its emphasis reinforces fear of mental illness in society and in the church itself.
Such an ungenerous view of people is unbecoming for followers of Christ. The church can push for change by changing our own view of people with mental illness, seeing them as individuals rather than as a category of people who are easy to dismiss. We must become more educated about mental illness and extend God’s grace rather than assume the worst about suffering people.
In Jesus’ day, among the stigmatized and marginalized were lepers, tax collectors, prostitutes, people who were demon-possessed and people who were disabled. They were systemically dismissed and even blamed for their conditions. Jesus saw them as people and reached out to them and met their needs. The church should do the same with the marginalized and suffering among us.