Back in 2014, Elliot Rodger murdered several men and women for "rejecting him for living a more enjoyable life than his." Soon, it came out that Rodger was diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome, and the media's reaction was to use ableist assumptions to make the connection between Aspergers and violent tendencies. There are problems with this logic. As a person who struggles with mental illness every day, this hit me hard. Let's discuss.
Blaming the Elliot Rodger shootings on Asperger's is insulting and a misrepresentation to that community and the mentally ill community as a whole. It's easy to detract from the actual causes of this violence: misogyny, MRAs, and societal embracing of sexual entitlement. Bringing up mental illness is a reflection of the semantic squabbling used as a defective tool to avoid talking about the real core of this issue.
We can look at any sensationalized headline like, “Bipolar man strangles woman in her home,” and see how easy it is for the media to perpetuate the bias that mental illness is linked to crime. While those headlines define two elements of the perpetrator, they exist separately. These headlines use a rhetorical tactic that attempts to create a link between the diagnosis and the crime. This is a false correlation.
Let’s look at the facts: in 2008 the American Journal of Psychiatry published a study from Oxford University’s Department of Psychology and the Karolinska Institute of Sweden that looked at population data on crime over 13 years since Sweden keeps population data on mental health and crime.
The data showed:
- 1 in 20 people with severe mental illness was responsible for violent crime.
- 5.2% of violent crimes over that 13 year period were committed by people with severe mental illness. Severe.
- 5% of sexual offenses, 3.6% of robberies, and 3% of common assaults were committed by people with mental illness.
Remember, we’re looking at the criminal population of Sweden as a whole.
More facts: several more studies done in the U.S. suggest that individuals with severe and persistent mental illness are responsible for no more than about 3% of violent crime. Coupled with alcohol or drug abuse, that number rises to 9-15%.
As we can see, mental illness and violence do not have a defining correlation, but the media is adamant to make it appear that they do. The data shows that the vast majority of rapists, abusers, harassers, and murderers are, in fact, "sane" people. So what explains all these shootings, rapes, assaults, and murders of women we hear about all the time? Misogyny, sexual entitlement, and patriarchy. The idea that men should be rewarded with sexual favors by women because they exist. The concept that women are subhuman. Constant exposure to these ideas that men absorb and repeat over and over again until they build a rage against the female gender that results in women dying.
The negative stigma surrounding mental illness is already so permeating in our society that it presents a danger to those who suffer from mental illness. People with mental illness are marginalized for something they can’t control, and every time another sensationalized headline hits the papers, it perpetuates this ableist treatment of the mentally ill in our society. This is why it’s important to look at the research and talk about why Elliot Rodger did what he did, disproving this idea that mental illness causes crime and death. It doesn’t.
Misogyny is not a mental illness. It is a learned behavior supported by patriarchy. It’s in our media, our homes, our schools, and our politics. MRAs enthusiastically supported Rodger’s hatred of women on countless online forums, and that’s what caused this violent rampage. He was encouraged by many other men who supported and validated him. Are all of them mentally ill? Doubtful.
Furthermore, using this logic, anyone thinking this was not purely a hate crime should also correlate every straight person who has killed a gay person with mental illness, or any white supremacist who killed a black person with mental illness. Do we do this? No. We manipulate the headlines to say things like Former Stanford swimmer appeals sexual assault. We humanize the perpetrators and demonize the victims.
"Mental illness” is used far too often to mask hate crimes against women as random acts of violence, emphasizing that this is not a cultural problem, but an individual one. The cause of the Santa Barbara shootings was not “mental illness” because violence against women is committed every day, and Elliot Rodger had access to a wealth of support in the mental health world. But what did he do? He went to MRA support groups who perpetuated and supported violence against women, who told him, “YES. Your feelings about sexual entitlement are valid. And YES. Women deserve to be killed.”
And he had access to a gun.