When the incomprehensible happens, we are much happier if we can reduce the event to a single cause, put it in its little pigeon hole where it can’t disturb us as much. Attributing mass violence like the shooting in Aurora, CO to mental illness fits this bias of ours very comfortably. Of course, that doesn’t mean that mental illness really is the answer–or the only answer.
Daniel Lende of Neuroanthropology started a discussion on this topic when Jared Loughner shot Gabby Giffords and several others. With this new act of mass violence that we are attempting to explain away instead of understanding in all its dimensions, he’s focused his thoughts more. The questions he prompts are fascinating, particularly for those familiar with how much cultural context–what we collectively accept and reject as civilized behavior–determines diagnoses of mental illness.
I’m familiar with these questions more in terms of sexual behavior. Why was homosexuality considered a mental illness? How do we justify a diagnosis of “paraphilia” (illness) instead of “fetish” (non-illness) based on whether a desire causes problems functioning in society when society itself is deeply irrational about sex, and kinky sex in particular? Where do we draw the lines for what someone can legally consent to for pleasure when we allow people to damage their own health and bodily integrity for other reasons?
These aren’t questions with easy answers. Nor are the kinds of questions we should be asking ourselves with regard to mass violence, whether in the presence of clear mental illness or not. Violence is not anything like an inevitable outcome of of mental illness, even extreme paranoid schizophrenia. Also, there are commonalities to those who do commit mass violence that do not match the patterns we see in mental illness itself. Then there’s the fact that our society maintains certain kinds of delusional thinking that can fuel violence but are so prevalent we don’t consider them a mark of mental illness.
Daniel doesn’t necessarily have answers. Neither do I. But I do recommend reading his post and some of the information he links to. The questions implicit in that information are worth thinking about instead of simply explaining away with a label.