Stigma - The Coping Mechanism of Society.

by Sarah Myles

Our society has a mental illness.

Somewhere in the world, someone commits a heinous, horrific crime. It hits the media. Predictably, often before the culprit has even seen a doctor, assumptions are made about their mental health. Medical terminology is bandied about, slang terms are used in throwaway remarks – all as people instinctively try to externalise what has happened. Reduce it to something easily identifiable as different, so it doesn’t have to be looked at. It is society’s own coping mechanism, and it is achieved through stigmatising language.

When James Holmes walked into a Colorado cinema screening of a Batman film on 20th July 2012 and killed 12 people, injuring 58, he had barely been taken into custody before he was declared by a Police Commissioner to be “clearly a deranged individual”. Traumatised eye-witnesses and emergency responders repeatedly pointed to his appearance as an indication of his crazed state – he wore a gas mask, body armour and red hair dye. He was described as looking monstrous. Obviously, this man is a dangerous Batman-obsessive. Obviously, he’s not like the rest of society. He’s different, wrong, defective in some way.

It is human nature to look for reason and explanation – particularly following a traumatic experience. It’s how people process thoughts and feelings. If somebody has a clear motivation for a crime – be it revenge, money, passion, religious or political zealotry – society can accept it with greater ease. People can point to a particular act or event and say “That’s why”, and though it may be tragic and pointless, that reasoning allows communities to sleep better in their beds.

When someone has no clear or apparent motivation, how does society make itself feel better about their terrible actions? The criminal is demonised into something ‘other’. Something outside of the ‘norm’. The media rifles through their lives looking for that one thing it can point to and say “That’s why”. And it’s almost always a mental health problem.

The difficulty here is that, the media is almost always proved right. In those cases, there will almost certainly be some kind of evidence of mental health problems in their history, because mental health problems have contributed to their actions. But so have lots of other factors, which society doesn’t want to look at.

 Don’t about 1 in 4 of us also have evidence of mental health problems in our history? The language and assumptions used in these situations are problematic for those suffering from mental illness, because it creates an association with a heinous act. Anders Breivik of Norway murdered 77 people on 20th July 2011. His psychiatric analysis was controversial and flawed, but though he was ultimately declared legally sane (having the ability to distinguish right from wrong), Professor of Psychiatry Ulrik Fredrik Malt found him to suffer from several personality disorders and possibly paranoid psychosis. Well, global media, that’s not entirely dissimilar to me. Does that mean I am capable of mass murder? Of course not - because the mental health problems experienced by Anders Breivik are only one factor contributing to his actions. The whole of his human experience led him to that terrible day, and that is entirely unique to him. Unfortunately, that fact doesn’t make a catchy headline, or memorable soundbite, so according to the media’s manipulation of stigmatising language, if Anders Breivik has to sit in the ‘different’ section of society, I guess I have to go sit there with him.

And James Holmes – he isn’t like everybody else, right? He was, allegedly, in costume – as was half the audience he attacked. He is a huge fan of Batman – as was everyone in that cinema, attending a midnight screening. He was armed with weapons that he obtained legally – because, in the United States of America, people staunchly defend their “right to bear arms”. How many people in that cinema owned firearms, albeit left them at home? He had been a student at the University of Colorado – as had many people present. He had sought help for an unspecified mental health problem in the months prior to his crime, and we know that, statistically, several of the audience members in the cinema that night would also have had experience of mental health problems.

But the media doesn’t focus on the similarities, because that would shatter the careful picture they painstakingly paint to allow society to cope. And that way lies chaos.

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