Early, and now discredited, reports from the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut earlier this month pegged Adam Lanza, the suspected shooter, as being diagnosed with various mental illnesses. As is usual in these cases, various dubious “experts” of various stripes have turned up on network television to give their (un)educated guesses as to what he may or may not have suffered from.
The reality is, we don’t know what mental illnesses, if any, Adam Lanza had or what, if any, medications he might have been taking.
This hasn’t stopped various pundits from declaring that the focus in the aftermath should be on mental illnesses and their links to violence. Links which, statistically, are so remote that those without a mental illness are actually more likely to commit violence.
The reasons behind the Sandy Hook shootings may never be understood. Just as with the theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, the killer was not clear about his motives.
What we do know is that all of this negative attention on mental illnesses means a huge step backward in the fight against the stigmas attached to them.
Whatever the legal outcome in the wake of the massacre in Connecticut, the public perception of mental illnesses will become more negative, pushing back years of educational work to change it. Of all the common links between the mass murderers of the past few years, mental illness is not one of them.
Yet society assumes that because someone is able to commit atrocities like these, they must have suffered from a mental disorder of some kind. In today’s atmosphere of “reporting,” the type of disorder doesn’t matter. Any will do. So long as it has a scientific-sounding name they can spout when diagnosing after the fact, they’ll use it.
So the OCD sufferer, the autistic child, and the bipolar office worker will see more sideways glances and quiet discrimination despite there being no evidence that they are prone to violence. This, sadly, is the legacy of our society’s inability to come to terms with the fact that sometimes bad things happen and it’s not always possible to prevent every evil from manifesting. Instead, we’ll continue to find things to point fingers at and lay the blame on, however unwarranted and no matter whom it might affect.