D'Arcy from Winnipeg
Solution Architecture, Business & Entrepreneurship, Microsoft, and Adoption

Mental Illness–The Strawman Sacrificed at the Altar of Fear

Friday, December 14, 2012 8:14 PM

“Monsters, aliens, phantoms, none of them are real. The thought that an actual person could do this is too awful so our imaginations create a way that’s easier to take. But even the strongest of imaginations can’t protect us once we know the truth.”

- From the TV Show “Dexter”

The Strawman

Like many others, I watched the news videos and read the reports in horror. The tragic school shooting is beyond understanding, beyond comprehension. That so many young lives would be ended in a burst of extreme violence with no obvious reason, no obvious motive, nothing to point a finger at so we can say “That’s why this happened”.

But when we don’t have something real, tangible, obvious to lay blame on, we start looking for one. There’s obviously fervour around gun control in the US, but I noticed a disturbing trend on Twitter today:

America…needs to do something about the over production of psychos.

Gun control isn’t a cure – better mental health care is.

It’s more than time for a national conversation on mental health

Anxiety depression & bipolar are all very real and need to be seen just as any other illness

Where we need to start is mental health awareness.

If people didn't take mental health seriously before, they should start now

What’s interesting here – we have no idea what the shooter’s mental state was. We have no idea whether he was suffering from any mental issues, other than a comment made in one report (that I haven’t seen corroborated or repeated anywhere else) that the shooter was Autistic. And yet here we are, with a wave of people on Twitter posting about how we need to push a mental health agenda in light of this tragedy.

So why prop up a strawman and name him “Mental Health”? Because it makes us feel better. It’s a point of control. It’s something that, while things don’t make sense, we can point to as the reason. But in doing so, we do a huge disservice to the millions of people who suffer from mental illness everyday – illnesses that potentially have nothing to do with the gunman.

An Education in Mental Illness


In Kevin Dutton’s recent book, The Wisdom of Psychopaths, he talks about the traits we see in someone who is psychopathic:

Ruthlessness, Charm, Focus, Mental Toughness, Fearlessness, Mindfulness, Action

Interestingly, he also shows how these traits are shared between the TV stereotype of a criminal psychopath and socially productive psychopaths that we might label heroes. Consider the “Great British Psychopath Survey” he conducted, which aimed to assess the prevalence of psychopathic traits within an entire national workforce. Participants filled out the Levenson Self-Report Psychopathy Scale and entered their employment details. Here are the results for most psychopathic professions:

1. CEO

2. Lawyer

3. Media (TV/Radio)

4. Salesperson

5. Surgeon

6. Journalist

7. Police Officer

8. Clergy

9. Chef

10. Civil Servant

Are people in these professions evil? Criminal? Plotting to harm? No, they just exude psychopathic traits. We always use the term “Psycho” in a negative context and typically associated with extreme criminal activity/brutality. But there are “good” psychopaths in society. Let me tell you something, if I’m having open heart surgery I want my surgeon to be fearless, focussed, mentally tough, and mindful.

Dutton quotes Joe Newman, professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison in the book, where he says:

The combination of low risk aversion and lack of guilt or remorse, the two central pillars of psychopathy may lead, depending on circumstances, to a successful career in either crime or business. Sometimes both.

Elsewhere in the book Dutton talks with a British special forces soldier. Through tests, this soldier is shown to be a bonafide psychopath from a neurological point of view. Yet he’s not a criminal – in fact, being in the military, he’s seen as a hero. Can psychopaths be criminals? Yes. Can non psychopaths be criminals? Absolutely. Psychopathy is typically associated with criminals, but in reality there are many more living amongst us that do no harm; so to the Twitter poster who suggested America “do something about the over production of psychos”, he should probably identify whether he meant the harmful or beneficial kind.

Depression and Bipolar

Both Depression and Bipolar are mood disorders that have their basis in brain chemistry. Receptors in the brain don’t function properly, and therefore signals don’t get communicated properly between nerve cells. Other chemicals, like dopamine, are thought to be involved as well. The key difference between Bipolar and Depression is the manic highs that Bipolar people exude.

Google “Bipolar” and you’ll see many links that refer you to incidents where people “went off their medication” and committed horrible acts. Seeing enough of these, it’s easy to paint a picture of people who are one missed pill away from losing it and committing acts of violence. But the reality is that the vast majority of people suffering from Depression and Bipolar are not violent or aggressive, and pose more of a threat to themselves than others.


According to the Brain and Behavour Research Foundation, Autism is…

Autism, more commonly referred to as autism spectrum disorder (ASD) by clinicians and families, is a biological condition that limits a child’s ability to develop social relationships and communicate. As a result, children often have significant problems in learning and experience many behavioral difficulties. The condition is usually life-long, although overall outcome is improving.

While the condition is life long and people with Autism face hurdles and struggles many don’t, many live productive, self-sustaining lives. If you’re uncomfortable with people with Autism, get over it. According to a recent article in the Toronto Star, 1 in 88 children are Autistic.

What’s My Point

I am all for people raising awareness about mental illness, but not under the context of violent crime prevention. This idea that a “crazy guy” killed children and therefore we need to dig into the mental health issue in North America is insulting – and I say that as someone who has clinical depression. One study suggests that 1 in 4 people have a mental illness. ONE IN FOUR! That statistic should be the catalyst for us to implement change, not a horrific event.

Do you know why you should care about how society views mental illness? It’s for your co-worker that takes sick days and is chastised because he shows no visible signs of illness. It’s for parents who would rather shield their children from being exposed to special needs kids at school. It’s for the millions of us who constantly get lumped in with the extremes of our conditions – the Ted Bundys, the Dahlmers, the Gacys. And its for those that haven’t been diagnosed and aren’t getting treatment out of fear of rejection because of the horrible stigmas society has placed on these illnesses.

Mental illness is a societal issue that needs to be dealt with, but suggesting we need to deal with it after a vicious, senseless act does nothing but paint those with a mental illness as potential criminals and furthers the negative stereotypes.

Not every tragedy has an explanation, and not every criminal’s actions can be explained away. A strawman is easier to look at and accept than the horror of realizing the monster we fear might just be a regular human being, just like us.


# re: Mental Illness–The Strawman Sacrificed at the Altar of Fear

Thank you for providing this useful post!There are a lot of people suffering of mental illness and it is very important to know the important signs of each disease in order to put a correct diagnose.For instance there are people who don't make the difference between ADD and ADHD. 1/30/2013 12:32 PM | Rob Johnson

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