Let’s Not Blame the Mentally Ill: The Tragedy at Virginia Tech

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Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

First, I want to direct everyone’s attention to the excellent essay written by Dr. Dombeck about the tragedy at Virginia Tech. This canbe found at: Issues raised by the Blacksburg, VA massacre

As Dr. Dombeck correctly points out the first impulse after such tragic events is to find someone or something to blame. My concern is that people not blame either Koreans, or the mentally ill. There was a report in the newspaper today that the Korean community in the United States fears that they will be blamed and become targets of attack as a result of Mr. Cho’s actions. That would be a tragic mistake akin to blaming all Virginia Tech students for getting in the way of the bullets that were fired. Equally preposterous is the idea that all mentally ill people are responsible for what happened in Virginia. The mentally ill are a particularly handy target for blame since they tend to be stigmatized as being insane and out of control. In actual fact the incidence of violence among those with psychotic illnesses is quite low.


This is why we have to be very careful not to form generalizations and create stereotypes both of which can be damaging to others. For example, all Arabs are not responsible for the World Trade Center attack of 9/11. In the same way, all Muslims are not extremist radicals who believe in the use of violence. Yet, after 9/11 there were Arab Americans who were attacked in the streets as though they had flown the planes into the twin towers and there were Sikhs who are not even Muslim who were attacked on the false belief that they were Arabic. Presumably, the people who committed these violent acts against those they believed are the enemy is normal, white Americans.

During my many years working in psychiatric hospitals and outpatient clinics I learned that those with mental illnesses such as Bipolar Disorder, Schizophrenia, Schizoaffective Disorder, Major Depression and all the other variations of these disorders are no more violent than anyone else. There are a select few who had histories of some violence, mostly in response to an auditory hallucination during a psychotic episode. In actuality, the incidence of violence among this population is lower than the average normal population. These people suffer from a serious brain disorder but in all other ways feel the same sense of sadness, happiness, love and anger that the rest of us feel. They have religious beliefs, a sense of conscience, of right and wrong, of justice and injustice and of fairness and unfairness. Once their symptoms are controlled with the correct medications they perform, feel and interact much like other people. Even when they are not on medication and are experiencing symptoms they are not a danger to anyone. In fact, it has been my experience that, on the whole, someone with a serious psychotic illness who is not medicated can be a greater danger to their self than to anyone else.

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Those with mental illnesses are keenly aware of the stigma attached to that diagnosis. This stigma causes them great pain and their illness is a source of great embarrassment.

This web log is not meant to romanticize those with mental illness or to glorify what mental illness is all about. The mentally ill are just like everyone else in society. I have met some who are wonderful people and others who are unpleasant and mean spirited, just like anyone else. In other words, if they were freed of their illnesses they would be like the rest of us and that means that they would range in personality types and pleasantness. The major point is that they do not deserve the stereotyped images of them as dangerous murderers who should be shunned and avoided.

In reading about the tragedy at Virginia Tech and about the person who committed the atrocities please remember that this does not define mental illness or the mentally ill. Just as a reminder, normal people commit murders that they justify through their religious and political beliefs. Terrorists of all types are people selected to carry out their murderous deeds because they are normal, calm and convinced that what they are doing will save the world.

The way we think, what we think and the conclusions we reach can have serious consequences if those thoughts direct us to take unjust actions. Instead of engaging in blame, whether it is the mentally ill, Koreans, other minority groups in the United States, let us mourn the loss of life in Virginia and begin the process of healing.

As always, your opinions are welcome and encouraged.

Keep Reading By Author Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.
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