A Million Ways to Be Crazy
Imagine there’s a very rare blood disorder which makes people more likely to be violent.
It’s called Haemomania — literally ‘blood madness’. In sufferers, excess adrenaline in the bloodstream is converted to a more powerful chemical that stimulates the aggression centres in the brain.
Whether this actually makes someone act violently varies depending on diet, genes and personal constitution, but Haemomaniacs definitely have killed people. They’ve stabbed them and shot them and run them down with cars. And whenever these attacks are on the news, the coverage mentions the perpetrator had faulty blood. No details, just that: bad blood. The Taylor Swift song has become a bit of a meme.
Now, imagine you too have a blood disorder, but a different, much more common one: sickle-cell anaemia, say, or haemophilia. Your disease has zero correlation with violence, mostly you manage if with medication, but even if you can’t, in the rare, tragic worst case it kills you — no one else.
Still, every night on TV you see policemen and politicians and armchair pundits being quizzed about violent criminals’ undefined blood problems. How do you think you’d feel?
Or try this: imagine you suspect you might have a blood disorder, but you aren’t sure. You’ve had a nervous late-night Google and you’ve got some of the symptoms: you’re tired all the time and you’re getting a lot of nosebleeds. With everyone going on about how people with faulty blood are dangerous, are you more or less likely to talk to someone? To go to the doctor? To get help?
Of course this whole scenario is absurd. There is no such blood disorder as Haemomania, and even if there were, we’d never stigmatise hundreds of thousands of people with even mild blood sickness on the basis of a tiny minority. That would be stupid as well as cruel, right?
You can see where I’m going with this.
Then why are we okay doing it when the illness is not in the blood but the brain?
This Guardian article about recent terror attacks makes a point of the fact that Mohammed Lahouaiej-Bouhle, the perpetrator of the Nice truck attack ‘had been treated with anti-depressant drugs’.
So what? I take anti-depressants. I take them every night. So do millions of others. You might as well have said he ate a lot of Haribo (I do that too).
The day after Jo Cox was murdered, The Telegraph ran a headline about her killer:
“Thomas Mair asked for mental health treatment day before MP died”.
The article says he was looking for help with depression, but again, so what? A tenth of the country has depression and almost no one attacks their MP. Even if depression is a risk factor for violence, it’s so dilute and heavily contingent on other factors as to be meaningless. Attributing a murderer’s murdering to his depression is like attributing a heart attack to a single Jaffa cake the victim ate on a Wednesday back in 1996.
Part of the problem is specificity. The ICD-10 Classification of Mental and Behavioural Disorders — basically the medical master list of mental illnesses and how to recognise them — is 374 pages long. There are a lot of different mental glitches, and they all have a lot of different gradations, and lumping everyone who suffers from one into one box and slapping a far-right-murder-sticker on as the label is massively unhelpful.
Here are some oft overlooked facts about mental health:
1: about a quarter of people in the UK and US have some form of diagnosable mental health condition — that’s the whole West Stand every time Old Trafford fills up for a Man United game. It’s 2 million of the people who watched the finale of Game of Thrones. Mental illness is common. Trust me, you know, and love, a lot of crazy people.
2: Mental health conditions generally aren’t fatal, but they can be. Six thousand people killed themselves in the UK 2014. Given that roughly 15 million people in the UK have some form of mental illness, that’s a tiny fatality rate: less than one twentieth of one percent, but even that miniscule number is still vastly higher than the percentage of people with mental illness who will ever be a threat to anyone other than themselves. What’s more, the fatality rate goes up significantly for people who aren’t diagnosed, just like a physical illness. Which is hardly surprising because (drumroll please…)
3: Mental health is physical health. Mental illnesses are physical illnesses. Our minds arise from the flow of chemicals and electrons through our brains. I know, right? Mind=blown.
Some people think terms like ‘crazy’ and ‘loon’ are ableist, and you should stop using them. I don’t personally believe that. I’m a crazy loon, and I use them all the time. But it’s because I’m a crazy loon* that I know how lonely it is to be thinking about killing yourself and not believe you can tell anyone, or to binge-eat in secret because you’re ashamed. More importantly, I know how much better things got when I did tell someone, when I saw a doctor, when I spoke to my wife.
That’s why I’m sensitive to stuff which builds up mental health stigma. I’m scared that it will keep the people who suffer from the same things I suffer from, from getting the help that I got. And then those people will be in more pain than they need to be, and some of them will die from it.
This isn’t a plea not to mention mental health, it’s vital we talk about it more, not less. It’d just be nice if the media could not treat sufferers like we’re all one thing, defined and marked out by the worst afflicted. There are a million ways to be crazy, after all.
So, whether you’re a broadsheet journalist penning a reaction to the Normandy hostage situation, or discussing terrorism with four friends around the office coffee machine, please consider this. If you really think the mental illness of the attacker is relevant, by all means bring it up, just… be careful, okay? Because odds are one of those four friends has a mental illness too, and you wouldn’t want them to think you were talking about them.
*Depressive bulimic, to be technical.