Mental Illness and Danger: The Negative Implications of this Automatic Association

Ashley Cheff


Fifteen out of the last twenty-five of the world’s largest shootings in the last fifty years have taken place in the United States. In 1999, Columbine, Colorado’s local high school, was shocked by the loss of 13 lives when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold’s failed bomb attempt led to mass murder. In 2004, student Seung- Hui Cho murdered 32 people on the campus of Virginia Tech and injured 17 others. Later in 2012, James Holmes entered into a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado and murdered 12 individuals, while injuring 54. Most recently in June 2015, Dylann Roof entered into an African American church in Charleston, South Carolina, and motivated by anger and hatred, murdered nine people. Such incidences have sparked debates over the right to own guns in the United States. Parallel to these have been discussions on the relationship between mental illness and violence. There is little recognition, however, that not every mass shooting occurs because the perpetrator is “crazy.” An individual being mentally ill does not imply that they are necessarily dangerous. However, labeling mentally ill persons as dangerous has serious negative implications. First it perpetuates the negative stigma towards the mentally ill. Second, labeling mentally ill individuals dangerous has negative implications to the individual’s self-concept.

In this paper I present a few cases to illustrate how such labeling occurs. Next, I use Ian Hacking’s concept of looping effects as a lens to demonstrate how the label of being dangerous might affect individuals with mental illness. I bolster this point by drawing on some studies on mental illness and stigma in psychology literature. Finally, I argue that failure to differentiate between a person who has a mental illness and a person who is dangerous is detrimental to the self-insight of mentally ill persons and to society.


Ethics; Psychiatry

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