Dear Mr. Parker: Please stop referring to us as “crazy,” and conflating “mental illness” with violence; Dear Media: Please stop letting everyone you interview get away with this

by Jeanene Harlick | August 30, 2015 12:02 am

Did you know that the mentally ill are no more likely to commit acts of violence than the general public? (3-5 percent of violent acts are associated with people with severe mental illness, to be exact, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services1.

Did you know that, on the contrary, people with severe mental illness are ten times more likely to be victims of violent crime rather than commit them?

No, I bet you didn’t. Due to the entrenched prejudice toward the mentally ill which saturates the Western world, and the media’s failure to ever call people out on it.

Acts of atrocious, tragic public violence have been rampant this past year in particular. And every time such an event occurs, I can literally count the seconds before some news reporter or pundit – or a family member of a victim – starts implicating “mental illness,” and associating it with gun violence and policy.

Sometimes mental illness is a factor; most of the time it isn’t. But the facts don’t really matter to family members, the general public, or the media.

It matters a hell of a lot to me. Because I’ve been labeled “mentally ill,” and its mythical association with violence is a primary reason why I experience prejudice and discrimination on a daily basis; why I can’t get a job to save my life; and why I live in poverty – despite holding college degrees and being a former, experienced journalist.

The on-air killing of Alison Parker Wednesday was a tragedy. And I don’t blame her father for being angry or even, necessarily, for dismissing all the mentally ill as unsound, “crazy people” – because this is a man in the throes of emotional pain, and he’s just an example of the unrecognized, widespread prejudice toward the mentally ill which has been indoctrinated into almost all people living in Western societies for centuries.

But using such language – and particularly in the derisive way Mr. Parker and many others routinely do – in effect lumps all those labeled “mentally ill” together, with the underlying subtext we are all deranged, all prone to violence, all unfit for full participation in American society, and that we should not be afforded the same rights as other citizens. And that is not fair, and not representative of the democratic principles our nation was founded on.

So while I don’t blame Mr. Parker, I do blame the media for failing to qualify or question such language, after this type of footage airs; I protest the media’s persistent refusal to call such language what it is (prejudice), and to remind its viewers, or readers, that terms like “crazy” are pejorative and stigmatizing, and that their use reflects and perpetuates entrenched, negative attitudes toward the mentally ill.

Let me ask you this —

How would you react if the father of a daughter fatally shot by a person of ethnicity, in public, said in the days following the shooting:

“I’m not going to let this issue drop. We’ve got to do something about chi#ks getting guns.”

“It’s senseless that her life… was taken by a nig#er with a gun.”

“He was a sp#c that got a gun, and that’s part two of where we’re going with this.”

I think it’s pretty fair to say the public reaction would be one of outrage.

Replace “ch#nk”, “n#gger,” and “sp#c” with “crazy people,” “crazy person,” and “crazy man,” and you get what Andy Parker, Alison Parker’s father, said to Fox News and CNN this week.

“Outrage” is an apt term for how many of us labeled “mentally ill” feel when we hear ourselves grouped together – when we come in many different shades – and referred to contemptuously as “crazy,” by voices brimming with disgust, in the wake of public acts of violence.

Crazy is a word just as pejorative as the epithets sometimes used to refer to other minorities. Consider the word’s origins. First used routinely in the 16th century, according to the online Oxford English Dictionary, “crazy”’s connotations then included “flawed,” “damaged,” impaired, “unsound,” “diseased,” “infirm,” “demented,” “cracked,” and “deranged2.” Today, its contemporary, dictionary definition still includes the terms “having flaws or cracks” and “deranged.” Those are anything but neutral terms.

The first recorded use of “crazy” appears to be in 1576:

“A. Fleming tr. Cicero in Panoplie Epist. 4 Remove not from the place where you be, sithence you are weake and crasie.3

In other words: Keep us locked away, and don’t let us out in public. Segregate us. Which is pretty much the general view today – even though these views are disguised by euphemisms.

(There’s probably a lot of fascinating, additional etymology behind the derivation of the word “crazy,” but unfortunately I have neither the time nor space, currently, to dig into it.)

I’m really, really tired of being referred to with slurs, without anybody objecting. I’m really tired of the public at large and the media conflating gun violence with mental illness, when such conflation is not based on facts.

You know what? The “mentally ill” don’t kill people. People kill people. Gun violence is not about our mental health system – although I will be the first to say this system clearly needs improvement. No, I believe the escalating acts of mass, public violence is about the increasing gap between the rich and the poor; it’s about more and more people feeling disenfranchised or less-than, in a nation where consumerism is the state religion and “success” is measured by standards few can achieve; it’s about racism and classism; it’s about how hard it is to simply get by. It’s about the fact we live in a “democracy” that’s a virtual autocracy, a land filled with desperate people.

American violence is about people who feel powerless because we’re living in a nation in spiritual and cultural crisis, where social injustice is the nation’s defining characteristic, values have vanished, prejudice of all sort is rampant, and heritage a foreign concept. A place where a large number of citizens feel powerless to change their circumstances or how people view them; the powerlessness builds, one’s lack of agency becomes brutally apparent, and sometimes a proverbial straw tips a struggling person over the edge – he or she commits violence to be heard, to have some personal justice, to exert some control and agency in a world in which he or she has none.

I don’t condone violence for any of the above reasons. Whether your life is fucked or not – it never justifies killing somebody. But it’s an outright falsehood to, over and over, implicate mental illness each time a public shooting takes place. Mentally ill people don’t kill people. People kill people. Period.

How about this: let’s stop calling people who commit acts of public or mass violence “mentally ill” or “terrorists,” or “Islamist extremists,” or whatever, and just call them what they are: Bad people. Criminals. Immoral. Or, sometimes, struggling or disturbed people who, in a period where they’ve been pushed to the extreme, resort to an evil which is never justified, regardless of the underlying motives, nor the interior or external, socio-economic circumstances they may be victim of.

The irony is us “mentally ill” are far more likely to direct violence toward ourselves than others. Everyone once in a great while these public shootings are committed by someone delusional, someone profoundly, mentally disturbed. But this is the exception, not the rule.

I am all for reforming gun policy. In fact I am extremely anti-second amendment. But I don’t think it’s just the “mentally ill” who should be barred the right of bearing arms, or at the least, severely restricted. I think it’s everyone.

The reason I get so inflamed about how nobody is ever called out about the discourse surrounding the mentally ill, is that this discourse exacerbates the prejudice we already experience as one of the most heavily stigmatized, invisible minority groups in the United States today4. These aren’t just the uninformed rants of someone who happens to be “mentally ill.” I studied issues like this in grad school, and can back up my statements with research[1].

Social worker Palmer Reg Orovwuje and psychologist A.J.W. Taylor (2006)5, who have conducted some of that research, wrote:

“People suffering from mental disability and mental illness are among the most disadvantaged groups in society. They suffer severe personal distress, and they are stigmatized, discriminated against, marginalized, and often left vulnerable. They are denied civil, political, and social rights, and are treated less than fairly in legal procedures, clinical practice, and institutional management… The yearnings of people with mental illness to be recognized as full citizens able to enjoy the same rights as other citizens has yet to be satisfied.”

People with mental illness experience disproportionate levels of employment and housing discrimination*, among other things. The incorrect belief that most of us are a public danger or menace – “time bombs” ready to explode in violence – plays a large role in the prejudice we experience6. During the past four decades, negative attitudes rooted in these unfounded beliefs have only intensified, resulting in greater social ostracism7. Where once the “mad” were simply viewed as another form of human diversity, we are now routinely – thanks also to the disease discourse used to describe mental illness – viewed as almost subhuman, atavistic beings8.

And research shows it is mainstream media’s coverage of mental illness – including reporters’ tendency to focus on high-profile, extreme, or violent cases – that plays a significant role in the negative stereotypes people have toward us today9. One Canadian study examining media coverage related to mental illness from 2005 – 2010 found, for example, that danger, violence and criminality were direct themes in 40 percent of articles10. Positive themes relating to recovery or rehabilitation were found in only 18 percent of articles, and 83 percent of stories lacked any quotes or perspective from individuals with actual lived experience of mental illness.

This is important not only because the entrenched stigma results in higher levels of unemployment and housing but also because it is internalized, causing low self-esteem, self-prejudice and feelings of worthlessness. Studies have found that the rejection and humiliation experienced by the mentally ill is tantamount to a “second illness” – that the prejudice and other consequences experienced from being labeled “severely mentally ill” has twice as large a negative impact on us than the “mental illness” itself.11 We buy into the “master status” of “mentally ill,” start believing we’re as defective as the general public – and many clinicians – think we are, and start giving up on life in general, as well as ever being viewed as valid or valued human beings.

That, readers, is why I believe, in the rare cases it is a “mentally ill” individual who commits one of these constant acts of public violence – that it’s not because the person is “crazy”(unless they’re experiencing a psychotic break, or delusional state). I believe it is due to the prejudice, stigma, discrimination, and ridicule that person experiences from being referred to by such slurs as “crazy.”

(Keep in mind that, after reviewing the manifestoes WDBJ shooter Vester Flannigan left in his wake this week, criminologists have concluded he acted out of the belief he’d been maligned, ridiculed and discriminated against, on account of his race, throughout his career. While his beliefs appear to lack credibility, they could have stemmed from past experiences of legitimate discrimination; if anything, Flannigan’s motivations point to the underlying current of disempowerment which I believe is the primary source of violence today.)

I tried calling some media outlets Friday, after watching Andy Parker go on TV again and refer to all mentally ill individuals as “crazy” – in his shaming and derisive way – following his visit with the news station and Virginia’s governor. I called a reporter and producer to point out how the media’s unqualified coverage of such inflammatory statements exacerbates the discrimination I and others routinely face.

The New York Times reporter I spoke to countered with something like, “Well, that’s not exactly true; the mentally ill are not allowed to be discriminated against – the American With Disabilities Act (ADA) protects you against that.”

In theory, the ADA does entitle the psychiatrically disabled to the same civil rights protections, equal-opportunity employment, and accommodations of the physically disabled. In practice, however, the ADA does not.

Susan Stefan, a University of Miami law professor, has studied this issue. Among the things she’s found, after reviewing thousands of court cases, is that employers win in more than 95 percent of ADA cases filed by the psychiatrically disabled and heard in federal appellate courts12. According to Stefan, employment discrimination claims filed by the mentally ill are subject to particularly venomous attacks by ADA opponents and given “short shrift” by courts in comparison to physical disability cases.

Stefan wrote:

“When President Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act in the Rose Garden among hundreds of people with disabilities, the mood was one of tremendous hope and triumph… Ten years later, it is increasingly clear that these hopes are not being realized for people with [mental] disabilities… [The] belief that Title I of the ADA protects an individual from employment discrimination based on psychiatric disability or perceived psychiatric disability amounts to a delusion of rights… The public is afraid of people with psychiatric disabilities. Families are ashamed of them… Children taunt them… The degree to which people with mental illness are limited in major life activities is largely irrelevant to the uneasiness and fear the conditions engender in others.”

So let me ask you, media, and anybody else who fails to question mental illness discourse – why don’t you express the same level of reprobation – or outrage – when public figures slander the mentally ill as violence-prone “crazies” as you do when people refer to ethnic minorities as “nig#ers,” “chin#s” or “spi#s”?

Will you own up to your double standard? I doubt it. But I won’t stop writing about it, or trying my damndest to change it, until you do.

*While the majority of people with mental illness want – and are able to – work, less than 15 percent are able to obtain employment. People with psychiatric disability exerpeince far greater discrimination than those with physical disabilities; our unemployment rates are 3 – 5 times higher than the general population13.


1“Mental Health Myths and Facts.” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services:

2Entry for “Crazy, adj.,” accessed on the online version of the Oxford English Dictionary[2]

3See footnoe ii.

4Corrigan, P. & Kleinlein, P. (2005). The impact of mental illness stigma. In P. Corrigan (Ed.), On the stigma of mental illness (pp. 11-44). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association; Orovwuje, P.R. & Taylor, A.J.W. (2006). Mental health consumers, social justice and the historical antecedents of oppression. In, A.J.W. Taylor (Ed.), Justice as a basic human need (pp. 95-111). New York: Nova Science Publishers, Inc.

5Orovwuje, P.R. & Taylor, A.J.W. (2006). Mental health consumers, social justice and the historical antecedents of oppression. In, A.J.W. Taylor (Ed.), Justice as a basic human need (pp. 95-111). New York: Nova Science Publishers, Inc.


7 See Corrigan & Kleinlein (2005), above.

8See Foucault, M. (1988). Madness and Civilization. New York: Random House; and Watters, E. (2010). Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche. New York: Free Press.

9Corrigan, P. (2005). Mental illness stigma as social injustice: Yet another dream to be achieved. In P. Corrigan (Ed.), On the stigma of mental illness (pp. 315-320). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

10Whitley, R. & Berry, S. (2013). Trends in Newspaper Coverage of Mental Illness in Canada: 2005-2010. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry. Feb2013, Vol. 58 Issue 2, p107-112.

11 Orovwuje & Taylor (2006); and Phelan, J.C., Link, B., Stueve, A., & Pescosolido, B. (2000). Public conceptions of mental illness in 1950 and 1996: What is mental illness and is it to be feared? Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 41, 188-207.

12Stefan, S. (2000, Fall). Delusions of rights: Americans with psychiatric disabilities, employment discrimination and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Alabama Law Review52, 271-318. Stefan also drew on this study in her analysis: Parry, J.W. (2000, May/June). Employment Decisions Under the ADA Title I – Survey Update. Mental & Physical Disability Law Reporter, 24, 348-367.

13See, again, Corrigan & Kleinlein (2005).

other articles/research which informed this post include: 

O’Brien, G. and Brown, M. (2009). Persons with mental illness and the ADA: Implications for the social work profession. Social Work in Mental Health, 7(5), 442-457.

Mackelprang, R. & Salsgiver, R.O. (1999). Persons with psychiatric disabilities. In, Disability: A diversity model approach in human service practice (pp. 167-171). Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing Co.

Martin, J., Pescosolido, B., & Tuch, S. (2000). Of fear and loathing: The role of “disturbing behavior,” labels, and causal attributions in shaping public attitudes toward people with mental illness. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 41, 208-223.

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