Carli Cosenza: How our language creates a monster out of mental illness

Monday, March 12, 2018 - 5:47pm

On Feb. 14, 2018, 17 students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. were killed by former student Nikolas Cruz. The deadliest school shooting since Sandy Hook in 2012, the traumatic events at Stoneman Douglas High School marked another attempted mass murder at a school in the years since Columbine, Colo. in 1999. There are not enough words to describe this tragedy that has once again struck our nation.

There is a complex web of issues that surround what happened at Stoneman Douglas — specifically, how the gunman was able to commit a mass murder. It is true that the issue is about gun control. However, this is not what I wish to discuss today. Rather, I wish to discuss a troubling development that I have witnessed in the aftermath of the shooting: the labeling of Cruz as a mentally disturbed "sicko.” This labeling has been done by President Donald Trump, his circle of politicians and the media. What everyone fails to realize is how their language surrounding Cruz (and other people with mental illness) has already created and will continue to perpetuate dangerously inaccurate stigmatizations about mental health that will only further marginalize and provide a reason for discrimination against people with mental illnesses. This is not an excuse for Cruz or a justification for his actions. Rather, I am worried that the language surrounding his possible mental illness reflects broader implications about the problems our society has with misunderstanding and thus stigmatizing mental illness.

The Stoneman Douglas shooting is the most recent example, but it is important to acknowledge that stigmatizing language has been used to label shooters historically. For example, last October, after a gunman in Las Vegas killed 58 people, Trump called the assailant “a very sick man” and a “demented man.” Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza, who killed 27 people in 2012, was labeled by his father as “evil.” And James Holmes, who killed 12 people at an Aurora, Colo. movie theater six years ago has been labeled as “broken,” “sick” and described to have had a “skewed” view of the world.

Yes, Cruz’s actions were fatal and the loss of 17 bright lives is absolutely, devastatingly heartbreaking, and it is true that he may have had mental health problems. According to reports, Cruz struggled with depression, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism, but many experts say that having a mental health diagnosis does not mean he would become violent. That is the key point here: Just because someone has a mental illness does not mean they are going to become a school shooter, it does not mean they are a “sicko” and it does not mean they are going to be a danger to society. The language being used to describe Cruz, and shooters in general, is now going to be attached to the greater population of people with mental illnesses.

When it comes to mental health, language matters. Instead of labeling people with mental illness as “sickos” and “monsters,” we need to understand the bigger picture. People are not born monsters, and having a mental illness does not mean you are a monster.

In order to clarify some information about the relationship between mental health and violent crimes, we should answer the question: Are people with mental illness more prone to committing violent crimes? Contrary to the claims of politicians, research suggests that no, this is not the case. It is estimated that one in six Americans has a mental illness. Yet, only 3 to 5 percent of violent acts are carried out by the mentally ill. In fact, people with mental illness are more likely to be victims — not perpetrators — of violence. Based on this information, the correlation between mental illness and violent crimes doesn’t really hold up.

To understand why stigmatizing language toward people with mental illness is so prevalent today, we need to understand where these stigmas originate. The truth is that stigmatizing language toward people with mental illnesses is so prominent in our culture that we may not even realize it. A team of researchers found that 46 percent of cartoons in New Zealand referenced mental illness and vocabulary toward those suffering from mental illness was found to be “predominantly negative or fundamentally disrespectful.” So even though there is no evidence justifying the stigma that people with mental illness are more likely to commit a violent crime, we are influenced from a young age to believe the opposite.

What we learn as children affects how we act as adults. In this case, stigmas around mental illness can limit employment opportunities. According to a 2017 British  study, 68 percent of people able to hire staff would worry that someone with a severe mental illness wouldn’t fit in with the team, 83 percent would worry that someone with severe mental illness wouldn’t be able to cope with the demands of the job and 74 percent would worry that someone with severe mental illness would require lots of time off. These concerns may be part of the reason just 43 percent of people with mental health problems are unemployed in comparison to 74 percent of the general population.

So, words matter. In the case of mental illness, they create barriers between the “sane” individuals and those who are disparaged by this stigmatizing language. For many, it may seem harmless to use these kinds of words, but they become the foundation of a kind of stigma that blocks treatment, prevents employment and wreaks havoc on the self-esteem and hopes of so many.

In order to stop the harmful effects of stigmatization, we need to be asking the questions: Who gets to define sanity? And how do we justify the stigmatization of mental health when we know that the numbers don’t even add up — that people with mental illnesses are no more likely to commit a violent crime than the “rational” individual? What is the reasoning behind the name-calling, labeling and marginalization of people with mental illnesses? And furthermore, what are the consequences of the discourse around mental health? How is our society being shaped by our language?

The current rhetoric around people with mental illness is very dangerous. It’s more than just characters in tweets or words uttered into a microphone. These words are absorbed into our brains and are the foundation of how we construct society. If we constantly hear about how “deranged” Cruz was, then his actions will be written off as something us sane individuals will never be able to understand. But if we can never understand him, then how do we prevent this from happening again? How can we ever understand mentally ill people if we continue to label them as monsters and isolate them from society? People are not born monsters; they are created. We have created a monster out of mental illness.

Carli Cosenza can be reached at carlic@umich.edu.