I’ve been thinking about this post since the incident where a bipolar man took hostages at Hillary Clinton’s New Hampshire campaign office. And I have also been thinking about this post since Britney Spears’ police interaction over the custody of her kids last week. But it wasn’t until Just Me at Master of Irony wrote a post about all the Google Search referrals to her site looking for information on whether people with bipolar were dangerous that I wrote this post.
In the reportage of the Clinton and Spears incidents, the word bipolar was bandied about without any discussion of what the disorder means, or how it affects your behavior. Truth is, bipolar disorder is a disease that affects the hormone and chemical levels of your brain— much like diabetes is a disease that affects the hormone and chemical levels of your digestive system. It’s characterized by swings in mood between mania and depression, and like diabetes, it can be controlled by medication so that your moods stay stable. Some people who have bipolar disorder, but not all, have mania that is accompanied by psychosis and delusions, meaning that the person doesn’t experience what is going on around them the same way everyone else is– they are hearing and seeing different things from what’s real. Some of the people who have psychosis can become violent, because they are so mentally confused. When someone with tendencies to psychotic manias is taking their medication, however, they are not any more prone to violence than anyone else.
In the rush to be first with a story, the press nonetheless likes to include a cause for violence–whenever someone committing a crime or a violent act happens to have been diagnosed with a mental illness, the diagnosis is trumpeted as the be all, end all. There is no attempt in the initial reporting to discover and discuss the reasons the violent actor himself gave, much less what reasons were given by family or witnesses. There is no initial report (even if there was any investigation) as to what stresses were occurring in that person’s life at the time. And follow up reporting tends to pay these explorations and explanations short shrift, regardless of the fact that far fewer are watching the follow up report. Many, many folks have already shifted their attention to the newest disaster.
The fact is, there are plenty of people who aren’t mentally ill who are dangerous, plenty of people who aren’t mentally ill who are violent. And to me, it’s scarier that these “normal” people acted violently, because unlike the mentally ill violent person, who invariably was unmedicated at the time of the incident, these people were in possession of their normal faculties. Their brain chemistry was not telling them different things about what was going on around them than what was real. Rather, these normal yet violent people possessed their full reason, and yet decided that violence was the solution.
There are a number of studies about what proportion of the violent offender population is mentally ill. In enacting a 2004 law for treatment of the mentally ill, it was found that somewhat over 20% of juvenile violent offenders were mentally ill. Let’s do the math– that means that 80% of the juvenile violent offenders were NORMAL. In another statistic, 20% of the people in Connecticut state prisons were mentally ill — that means that again, 80% of the people committing crimes were SANE when they committed their crimes. In another paper, it was found that 1000 of 16,000 murders were due to violence as a result of untreated bipolar or schizophrenia. That means 15,000 people were murdered by sane people. These sane, normal people committed these acts, contrasted with the significantly smaller proportion of mentally ill violent actors– but at least the mentally ill folks have a chance of avoiding the violence, if they are properly medicated. While that is a big if, taking a pill is a miracle contrasted with the mental calculus that these “normal” people performed before enacting violence.
I don’t mean in anyvway to say that people with bipolar will never be violent– they can be, under particular circumstances. If their disease includes paranoid, delusional, or psychotic features to their mania (and not every case does), and if their mania remains uncontrolled by medication for a long enough period of time to allow the paranoia/delusion/psychosis to get into full swing, then yes, bipolars can be violent. However, someone who is bipolar with these features who is properly medicated is less likely to be violent than another, “normal” person, given the statistics referenced above.
On a meta level, what makes me sad is that the media never attempts to discern the cause of any of the violence committed by sane and mentally ill persons, much less try to do something about analyzing the causes and starting a societal discussion about how to stop it. I have a suggestion for a place to start– stop looking for easy answers outside yourself, and look at whether you were generally kind to people in your life. If you didn’t do anything by action or inaction, by malignance or negligence, to have caused or contributed to damaging someone’s heart and mind, then go on back to your knee jerk assumption that all criminals are “crazy.”
Otherwise, volunteer at your local prison, donate some books to their library, teach someone to read, or let the county work-release program or misdemeanor/drug court community service come paint your business’s fence. Give those folks a chance to perform a different mental calculus. And, yeah, vote for health care reform, so those violent mentally ill folks can afford their medications. (And Head Start, and adequate public school funding, and a negative income tax, and subsidies for affordable housing, and de-leaded housing stock, and a thousand other things that form the “nurture” background against which those mental calculations are performed.)
Here’s another angle on the subject.
(Climbs off soapbox.)