Ok I'm going to go heretic right now. I know the right thing to say among Mental Health Activists is that there is NO connection between violence and madness. I really would like to be able to tow that Iine. The problem for me, however, is that I would be lying.
In my lived experience, there is a huge overlap. But not necessarily in the way you might think.
The first thing to get is a principle of Science 101: Correlation is NOT causation. As Matthew Cooper pointed out in a great article in Newsweek earlier this week: ‘The sun doesn’t come up because the rooster crows, even if they happen at the same time.” Maybe Oregon Shooting and Others Aren’t About Mental Illness, http://www.newsweek.com/maybe-oregon-shooting-and-others-arent-about-mental-illness-378875.
How does this play out in fact? Well, a lot of us who act violently toward others - whether verbally, morally, intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, materially or physically - either have a pre-existing mental health diagnosis, or someone eventually gives us one. That does not mean that mental illness ‘causes’ violence, however. In fact, making that assumption is bad science. To be sure, fish that fly together often fry together. But that does not mean that being fish made them fly - or that it made them fry.
On the other hand, both the flying and the frying may be connected with the same root cause. To see that root cause, however, you have to look deeper than surface associations. That’s what I think is going on here.
My best bet, from painful experience, is that the connection between mental health diagnosis and violence is 'marginalization.' Let me say up front that I don’t think marginalization is necessarily the ONLY cause of either phenomenon But I do think that marginalization is an important common denominator that can explain a lot.
Here is why:
1. Marginalization not only follows psychiatric labeling. It routinely precedes it.
It's now well known that 90% of the public mental health population are 'trauma survivors.' Equally, important the same is true for other groups - the substance use, corrections, homeless - that society sees - both as 'problems.' and as groups with a propensity for violence.
The reality for those of us in these groups is that our marginalization preceded our 'problems.' From childhood, we were already dealing with heavy duty stuff like abuse, neglect, domestic violence, sexual predation, discrimination, bullying, family conflict, poverty, homelessness, caregiver unemployment, etc. Moreover, when these things happened to us- not because of us or anything we did - all too often the rest of society put its head in the sand. Or worse, we were shunned for just for being in these situations. A lot of time, people with power who were supposed to change things actually betrayed us. They turned around and labeled us the cause of the social torture that was careening our way.
In other words, we live in a society that is marginalizing, literally, millions of people. This happens in different places and by different means for many of us. But, the fact remains that marginalization has been - and still is - a painful reality of far to many of lives.
Equally important, the consequences of marginalization - both personally and politically - are drastic and dire. Literally millions of us are being marginalized and treated as if our needs (and lives) do not matter. The message we get - and not just from 'perpetrators' but from upstanding community members and society at large - is that we have no worth, we do not deserve to belong, and there is no room for us in the world community of human peers. This kind of marginalization is happening everywhere and every minute - in all kinds of relatinships and in every organ of society: - families, friendships, neighborhoods, schools, churches, workplaces, agencies, offices. It is even happening - and perhaps most painfully happening - in the very organizations and institutions - that society has set up to 'help' 'problem' people like us.
2. Marginalization produces the kinds of biopsychosocial responses that get labeled 'mental illness.'
This practical effect of mass marginalization that millions of human beings are growing up in a constant state of fear and threat. This fear and threat occurs on 2 levesl. It is not only about the pain and threat social exclusion - although - to be sure - and is vast and crippling in an of itself. It also has to do with the effect of social exclusion. In other words - what it is like to try to live and survive when no one you know gives a shit whether people like you live or die, have a place to live, enough to eat, clothes on your back, etc.
3. This is where the violence becomes predictable.
Violence in these circumstances is a matter of statistics and odds. It is no longer a matter of individual morality of self-discipline. It is not about bad actors who need to learn how to calm down and 'act appropriately.'
It is about what happens when so-called civilized society has pushed people too far. When threat, fear and pain reach the breaking point. In human beings who might otherwise think about consequences. In citizens, friends and neighbors who might otherwise be inspired to care.
Enter the human survival response. This is the place of live or die. Where conscious thought stops - and sheer instinct takes over. All that matters is self-preservation. All choices that follow reflect this concern.
The world through this lens looks incredibly simple: Friend or foe. Predator or prey. You are actively for me, or else against me. If you want to live, make up your mind. Declare your loyalties now.
To navigate this frightening space - where reasonable people can no longer think and compassionate people no longer care, nature, in her wisdom and kindness, gives us three basic tools: fight/ flight/ freeze.
A lot of people flight or freeze. There are many benefits to this. Flight and freeze, on the whole, are a great thing for society as a society. The nature of threat in the modern world is becoming less immediately physical and less life and death - at least in a immediate existential sense. Maximizing responses that allow all concerned to see another day are, therefore, a very good thing. Understandably, civil society prefers this as the social order.
On the other hand, flight and freeze have their limits -- even in modern society. This is especially true, when - as now - we have created a society where many people understandably feel it is not safe (emotionally, materially, economically, socially, politically) to take on the dominant structures of power and privilege.
When only flighters and freezers are allowed in this kind of world, nothing ever changes. Flighters and freezers habitually ignore or avoid threat. So, there is no effective counter-voice. The powerful take more power. The rich get richer. The compliant become more compliant.
Thankfully, however, flight and freeze are not all we have. Some of us will fight. Even when threats are not immediate. Even when they are not life and death. This is not pathology, it is human diversity. It is good and necessary. It ensures not only the survival of the human species, but also protects the quality of our collective lives together.
While few people recognize this, the existence of social fighters keeps the rest of us safe and able to sleep at night. We count on them and we need them. The virtually assure the following: When things get bad enough - or stay that way for long enough - some fighter, some where is going to break the tension. They are not going to run or hide. They are going to face the facts and take the problem on. Hence, far from being an frustrating, inappropriate burden on the rest of humanity, the human 'fight' response - and those who wield it - serve and incredibly valueable social function.
4. Crisis meets opportunity.
Given the underlying social function, the sparks are bound to fly when the human 'fight' response collides with social dynamics like marginalization, exclusion and oppression. The statistical incidence of both phenomena in the modern world (fight response on the one hand, marginalization on the other), guarantees this will happen. A substantial percentage of the human population will default to fight under threat or stress. A substantial percentage of the human population is living in daily fear/ threat/ despair due to marginalization and the other impacts it produces. Routinely and regularly these states will collide.
When they do, we can and should predict what will happen. The fighters will target this source of their threat - whatever that is in their eyes. And they will try to take it down.
These are the 'lone wolves' of modern society. They are doing what fighters do. Consistently. Across marginalized groups. They are standing alone and taking on threat, because someone has to and fighters and freezers have ceded the field.
For this reason - and this is really important for the rest of dominant culture to get - you can't stop violence by marginalizing people. In fact, there's a really good case to be made that that will get you experiencing a lot more of it.
5. A personal appeal
To bring the point home I am going to say everything I just said again. But instead of saying it generally, I will say it personally. I frankly identify with the lone wolves and lone wolf violence. It's hardly fun to be "Wreck It Ralph" - or the person that everyone loves to hate. It's even more frightening to contemplate getting marginalized in this community and being considered the mad activist that other mad activists love to hate.
Be that what it may. I can't help myself. Something in me says this issue is important. Too important for us not to get. So I'm going to try to share how I understand it, and what I understand to be going on, as frankly and relevantly as I can. My hope is that some of those here will consider the points and engage in a meaningful dialogue around these issues that can take us further as a whole.
6. Lived experienced of one lone wolf, speaking about myself and also from what I have heard from others who, like me, personally connect with that term.
Those of us who society calls lone wolves frequently do not respond 'nicely' to oppression. We do not think tactically, speak softly, or consider consequences. We rarely live to see another day - at least in a metaphorical sense with regard to the issues of concern. Frankly, that is not our top value or core function - either personally or from a socio-cultural standpoint. It is also not the purpose of the energized responses that our bodies tend to favor, time and again, when exclusion, marginalization or indications thereof appear to us to lift their ugly heads.
The function we serve is simply this: Lone wolves target and try to take down the relational and cultural dynamics that we see and experience - in our heart of hearts - as the source of our oppression. In the heat of the moment, when those associations are triggered, there is no arguing or being rational. We are not leaving the room, running, hiding, or spacing out like everyone else. Those are legitimate responses and lot of people do them in order to survive.
But that is not us. We are the fighters. We are protecting what we value. We are the mother bears of what we see as the essential dignity of the human condition. Whatever threatens this, beware. We are taking it on and taking it down. And the last person standing, turn on the rights.
Please also note: This response in us does not come from the fact that we are mentally ill, adcicts, uppity, black, poor, homeless, uneducable, unemployable, inconsiderate, inappropriate, anti-social, etc. - at least as we see it. It comes from the marginalization - the socially constructed disabilities - that puts us in situations where we have to fight for human dignity - as we undertand that - in the first place.
7. Hoped for response
This is all pretty new territory to be articulating. At the same time, I'm betting there are a lot of lone wolves out there who, like me, have been secretly hoping for a different response from mental health advocates. To date, mental health advocates have mostly been backing the dominant culture band wagon, which amounts to marginalizing and castigating people who get violent.
Ultimately, I think this is a disservice - both to the mental health cause, diagnosed people and society at large. As a community, we have been making the same mistake with the lone wolves issue as the larger society has made with psychiatric labelling: Both reactiions, while understandable and holding surface appeal, amount to some people (with power) marginalizing and writing off other people (without power) instead of making a thoughtful, considered effort to try to understand and make sense of what is going on from the perspective of lived experience.
The fact of the matter is that lone wolves attack for a reason. In a very real way, this is violence that human beings of good conscience can make sense of -- and arguably must. Lone wolf violence has both meaning and message. You only need to scratch the surface to get a glimpse of the extensive, extended desperation and devastation that precedes (and builds into) the ultimate expressions that end up making the national news.
In almost every case, what you see is cultural outsiders, living in isolation, with no hope of ever belonging. As a group, we are people with few if any friends. We have virtually never experienced ourselves - for any sustained or expended period - as welcome or wanted in the neighborhoods, communities, schools or offices where 'the people of value' work and live. We have learned again and again that we do not fit in, that our best efforts are not enough and there is no reason to expect that they ever will be.
Year after year there is painful struggle. There are new insults every day. Every time we walk down the street or enter a store, others walk or look away. We are the fly in the ointment of human conversation. We know - can see, feel, tell - the way others put up with us for as long as they have to and then change the subject, leavel the room, close the door. -- So that they can get on with the real busines of their life. -- The real and really meaningful business. -- The business that has nothing at all to do with us, or who we are -- and never will.
Suffice it to say, these things mount. They reinforce, remind us, daily, of what we know to be true: There is virtually no possibility of becoming regarded as community members of worth and value given how the social rules are currently being written - and by whom.
Far too many of us feel this way. This is a source of boatloads of pain for boatloads of people who consider ourselves social refugees. We are people without a country, always adrift, with no friendly shores. To our knowledge, is no place in the known world that we can safely land and call our home. We have no loyalties because we have no citizenship. The politics of marginalization have stripped our birthright as human family. Once that birthright was gone, the other things followed. We lost, or lost faith in, our abiity gain digified work that would sustain our existence. Without that, our access to participation soon followed - the resources needed to create a community that speaks our language and that feels remotely relevant to what we care about and who we are. The cycle was vicious. The ending not good, no matter what route you chose to the bottom.
If these look and sound like mad peoples issues, they are. If this looks and sounds like mad people's message, it is. Mad people have been trying to this same message across to the dominant culture for years:
People react to real life concerns. They aren't simply 'mad.' They are 'mad' about something. The biomedical response of locking and drugging serves nobody well - including society. There are alot of things we can make sense of - but we have to look beneath the surface. We have to stop labeling human beings and start trying to understand human doings. We have to get to causes and conditions.
If we make a conscientious effort to do those things, everyone will be better off. Not only will we begin to understand the seemingly inexplicable, we will learn a lot about human nature. This in turn can help us transform our relationships with each other. It can also help us create a more just, welcoming, mutually responsible world.
This message is our legacy as a movement. It is the hugely important, critically necessary contribution that mad people have to make to human society as we know it. But it is not just about the polite 'disorders' like anxiety or depression that everyone can understand. And it's not just about relatively harmless eccentricities and quirks that, while troubling, create no real threat to anyones safety or property. It's really about everything - even the hugely awful offensive stuff that is so vilified in modern society that no one dares speak its name (except to say it's bad, bad bad)
On the other hand, when we finally bite the bullet and begin to face this shit, it can -- and literally will -- transform the entire domain of human relations. Not just personal and family relations, but entire communities and countries.
Moreover, given the dynamics of marginalization interacting with fight/flight/freeze, I'd also venture to guess that the route of trying to understand / make sense of experience is far the safest and most highly protective option. At a minimum, there is a world of learning and transformative potential to be had - both for individuals, families and commuities as a whole. Added to this, when practiced as intended, embracing a cultural ethic of curiosity, learning and understanding seems like exactly what we need to innoculate the the flighters and freezers from killing us softly by running away from problems. Better yet, these same values build our community capacity to embrace lone wolf intensity and to clarify, appreciate and integrate it's core messages. This means that instead of marginalizing lone wolves, we are using their gifts in the manner nature intended - and plus making an honored space in the pack for diverse people and insights that can benefit and enrich the quality of life for all.
This stands in stark contrast to the statistical probability, if we continue to marginalize and exclude, sooner or later, the lone wolf nature that is inherent in our species will boldly kill us all.
To me, that seems like a predictable outcome of the current course our culture is on. Yanno, the one where we continue to marginalize and then ignore or suppress the voices that are trying to raise our consciousness. It's just a matter of time.