Crazy Dangerous: The Relationship Between Mental Illness and Violence

A few summers back while I was stuck in LA traffic with an air condition-less car, I had a particularly bad panic attack. While I had experienced them before they were never as intense as this one. My limbs curled inward involuntarily, I lost feeling in my hands, my vision turned into blackened pixels until all I could see was darkness, and I bit my palm until it bruised trying to regain sensation in my fist. Out of fear that I might be dying, I called 9-1-1, hoping they would send paramedics. Instead, they sent the LAPD. The responding officer was very passive aggressive, asking vaguely accusatory questions I would have no way of knowing the answer to even if I were calm and collected. “So what do you think is causing this?” they squinted down at me as I sat on the sidewalk, shaking.

Their report, which I read at the hearing to reinstate my license, explained their decision with several justifications: I reported feeling cold even though I was hot to the touch, I was unable to drive, I was high. None of these things were true. I never reported feeling cold or even let the officer touch me. I wasn’t intoxicated and clearly demonstrated I was a competent driver by anticipating my need to pull over, yet they sent someone with a gun. Like many people with mental illness, I was placed in a potentially dangerous or at least damaging situation because I myself was perceived as a possible threat.

These panic attacks were harder to manage after this experience. Not only did I need to calm myself down to prevent hot flashes and shaking, but I needed to prevent hot flashes and shaking so that no one misinterpreted them in a way that caused some sort of repercussion for me. It’s a catch-22, as the added pressure of trying to appear “normal” makes it that much harder to act “normal.” I also experience mild psychotic symptoms under stress, so I’m afraid that if I can’t stop the panic, it’ll escalate to paranoid thoughts, disorganized speech, flinching and jumping when I think I hear or see something darting towards me. The consequences of being caught with those are much more severe.

I think a lot about how our culture has a history of using the idea of “crazy” as a means of control: “female hysteria,” electroshock and aversion therapy on queer people, classifying trans experiences as “psychosexual disorders.” Insanity is also used as a scapegoat for violent crimes so that the system can deflect accountability for the violence its institutions produce and uphold. Whenever a white man commits what is now almost a routine mass shooting, we don’t hear about entitled or dehumanization. We erroneously point to mental illness. Our culture is obsessed with mental illness as long as it can be used to justify abuse while claiming benevolence.

If you Google “mentally ill people killed by police,” you’ll get a pretty good idea of how the relationship between mental health and violence actually functions: Deborah Danner, Adam Trammell, Keith Vidal. Due to negative associations with the word “crazy” (i.e., “dangerous”), people often feel threatened by common symptoms of mental illness, such as sudden, animated gesticulating or scattered speech. However, it’s much more dangerous to be the one perceived as a threat than it is to be the one mistaking someone else for a threat. Although we like to blame mental illness for violence, it is much more likely that we treat mental illness violently, or even that violence creates mental illness (Think of the role of trauma in shaping mood disorders, personality disorders, etc.).

A number of years after my last hospitalization, I was walking around Berkeley when I saw a woman lying on her back in the middle of the sidewalk. Several people tried to ask her if she was okay, to which she would explain to us very calmly that she heard a growling sound and only felt safe when she was low to the ground. I went inside to get her a cup of water and when I came out, she was being questioned by Berkeley PD. I told them she wasn’t bothering anyone and they insisted that she was “scaring people” by lying on the ground like that. In trying to feel safe, she was placed in danger, even perceived as dangerous. She managed to avoid any violence, any forced hospitalization, the trauma of being declared “a threat to yourself or others,” although it probably wouldn’t be the last time she would be questioned by a system that wasn’t built to sustain her. One time years before I had a psychiatrist tell me that I was lucky to live in the culture I did because I could receive proper treatment for my condition. I laughed, thinking of how in a different  culture, my condition, our conditions, wouldn’t mean there was “something wrong” to begin with.

  Medical professionals are still claiming they know what’s best for us but I would argue that there isn’t anything sick about the way I perceive the world around me but rather the sickness lies in how I experience the relationship between those perceptions and the society I live in. If I could be born with a different brain less prone to anxiety, depression, dissociation, and psychosis I wouldn’t do it. I know the brain is a complex organ and adjusting these could potentially take away the parts of myself I’m proud to say are integral to who I am as a person: my passion, my empathy, my curiosity, my ability to imagine and invent and create. I would, however, like us to better understand these disorders so that a wider, more effective set of treatments could be available and I had the ability to decide which of them worked best for me. Though I’m not fond of people with stethoscopes pontificating at me, I’d be open to a discussion in which patients and medical professionals can collaborate to better understand what quality patient care looks like.

I’m hoping for such a conversation to come.

By: Alison McPherson

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