When a mass shooting occurs in the Western world, some journalists and political figures are quick to label the perpetrator as mentally ill. This is particularly true when the shooter does not belong to a racial minority, or is perceived as ‘belonging to the collective.’ In the wake of the recent tragedy in Christchurch, I spoke with Mental Health Foundation chief executive Shaun Robinson about the dangers of linking acts of extremism to mental illness.
First of all, thank you for agreeing to speak with me today on such short notice! So the Mental Health foundation has published a number of guidelines for journalists when reporting on mental health issues in New Zealand, which obviously aren’t always followed. Following the recent tragedy in Christchurch, it’s extremely important that news media are mindful of the flow-on effects any reporting might have. What are some of the more concerning comments you have seen regarding the shooter’s mental health, or comments about the mental health of other extremists?
There’s been a very damaging editorial that has drawn an unsustainable, illogical link between a violent crime by one individual who had a mental health issue, and the Christchurch terrorist’s own mental health. This editorial suggests that mental health is somehow tied to violent crime, as well as mass shootings and murders. Now, not only is this a completely inaccurate picture to paint, it is also extremely stigmatising and damaging to people that are struggling with their mental health. We should remember that 50% of all Kiwis will experience a mental health issue in their lifetime, so it’s not just a few people, but a lot of people that this approach is damaging.
How might this reflect negatively on people in New Zealand living with mental illness? And would you say these sorts of narratives make life harder for those with mental illnesses?
Shaun: They absolutely do make life harder. They contribute to a whole lot of stigmatizing myths and assumptions. But the evidence is absolutely clear from study after study that in fact people who are living with mental health issues are much less likely to be the perpetrators of violent crime. Specifically, there was a study done in the United States which found that people with long-term mental health issues were less likely to participate in mass shooting or gun violence than those without. People living with mental illness are far more likely to be the victims of violence and crime. So the facts just don’t support the narrative. And what these narratives do, particularly in this case, is create a sense of fear of people who are struggling with their mental health. That fear feeds into the way people treat those with mental health issues.
We often see blatant discrimination where people are refused housing, not given jobs, and are socially isolated because of their mental health – that feeds into self-shame, self-stigma, and can make their mental distress far worse. It also creates a general social stigma around mental health issues, so that people are less likely to speak up when they’re going through tough times.
That is irresponsible from so many angles. And especially right now, when we know that hundreds of thousands of Kiwis are extremely upset about the events in Christchurch, and [are] potentially having their own mental health impacted. So it is ill-conceived, irresponsible and damaging for journalists to create these false links between mental illness and terrorism.
Why do you think the media often jumps to mental illnesses as a factor in particularly violent criminal cases?
I think it’s based in stigma and ignorance. It’s based in being uninformed on the facts around mental health and violent crime. I also think it’s based around sensationalism, of wanting to create readership, get clicks, and sell news by playing to people’s bigotries.
I think there’s a lack of thinking things through. There has, of course, been incidences where an individual’s mental health has contributed to a violent crime. But those are individual instances. If, say, a Maori individual committed a violent crime, we wouldn’t jump to the conclusion and generalise that ‘all people from a Maori background are violent,’ because that would be incredibly discriminatory. But people still do jump to such conclusions when mental illness is involved.
How does the ‘lone wolf’ narrative tie into these sorts of statements? By this, I mean the idea that the shooter was ‘always a nice boy, but a bit of a loner, he had trouble making friends,’ and so on.
Well, I think it avoids the more difficult reality that the primary issue around this tragedy is the politics of racism, the politics of hate, and of white supremacy. The person who committed these acts, while they have personal responsibility for doing that, they grew those beliefs in an environment which fostered those beliefs.
Another narrative which I’m glad to see in the media is that we all have a part to play in reducing racist dialogue in our country. Every time we accept politicians playing the race card and the anti-immigration card, every time we laugh at a racist joke or don’t challenge a racist comment, we contribute to an overall environment where people can take those views to the extreme. An environment where racism goes unchallenged is fertile ground for terrorist extremism on the basis of such beliefs. So it lets us off the hook to say this person is a ‘lone wolf.’
Obviously, all types of people can commit crimes, and those living with a mental illness are no different. For those who do commit violent crimes, what patterns of behaviour might you see in a mentally ill defendant versus a defendant who is motivated by extremist views?
Well I don’t think we should actually make that connection. What we should look at is the extremist views. Regardless of a person’s mental health, we should ask: “what information are they consuming?”
For example, there was a murder of a British MP a few years ago, and again the journalists focused on the fact that the person had been treated for depression and anxiety. What they didn’t focus on was that they were a member of a fascist organisation, that they subscribed to neo-nazi literature online, and that they had essentially been indoctrinated into extremism and hate. That is the driver of the crime – a person’s mental health has nothing to do with it. Extremist white supremacist views are not a mental illness – they’re a political choice.
So you could say it absolves people from the responsibility of addressing those types of views. A bit of a change of topic here; What work are the Mental Health Foundation doing following the shootings?
We’ve been part of an initiative in Christchurch called ‘All Right’ for 8 years, which was supporting the community in response to the Christchurch earthquakes by building up people’s resilience and wellbeing skills. So that program is already there on the ground and we’ve immediately pumped some more money into it. The programme has existing relationships with the migrant community and Islamic community, so they’re kind of our frontline response. They’re not focused on service delivery because that’s not our role, but on encouraging people to understand how they can cope with the emotions, the stress, and the trauma.
We also give general self-care advice. We’ve been doing that nationally through our website and social media, as well as providing that across networks of workplaces, other NGO’s, and education facilities so that people have some good tips on how to deal with what is a very upsetting time for all Kiwis. We also have an information service that helps people find out what sort of help is available near them.
Another key part of our role is to influence the public discussion, because racism fundamentally does affect people’s mental health and wellbeing. What I think was already there, but wasn’t being listened to very clearly, is that the Islamic community in New Zealand has consistently suffered racist attacks and discrimination. And that definitely impacts on a person’s mental wellbeing. If you don’t feel safe, if you don’t feel accepted, if you don’t feel like you can be who you are, whether that be from a cultural perspective, from a gender perspective, from a sexuality perspective or otherwise, your mental health is going to suffer. So this is a long-term determinate of people’s mental wellbeing. In the wake of such a shocking event, it’s important that we discuss issues like racism and stigma around mental health in a really informed and adult way, so that something positive can be gained from this horrible tragedy.
For more information on the Mental Health Foundation, visit mentalhealth.org.nz