Schizophrenia in the media

December 1, 2011 at 7:06 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , , )

Bit of a departure for a blog about self-publishing here, but I’ve been following the news coverage of Anders Breivik’s diagnosis by forensic psychologists as a paranoid schizophrenic. You remember Breivik; he’s the self-described ‘anti-Muslim militant’ who killed 77 people in and around Oslo in July.

Breivik has been quite clear in describing his motivations for the attack. He targeted the summer gathering of Norway’s Labour party in twisted retaliation for what he saw as their pro-multicultural, pro-immigration policies. Breivik, like many on the far right, felt not only that radical Islam was a very real threat to European societies, but that political entities on the Left were in some way allied with these radical Islamists.
Since his arrest, Breivik has been awaiting trial, with much of his time spent in solitary confinement. Now that he has been found insane, he may, depending on the court’s agreement with the findings, be facing compulsory psychiatric care instead of a prison sentence.

I’ve been reading a lot of comments on this verdict, and there’s two things that trouble me.

One is that this was a politically motivated attack. We don’t consider the mental health of the 9/11 hijackers, or of the Air India bombers. These were people acting in accordance with a very definite political agenda, using violence to achieve their aims. By lumping Breivik in with the likes of Charles Manson and Fred West, the ideology he subscribed to is passing by almost without comment. We know he was involved in one way or another with far-right groups, but when we categorise him as simply insane, all that seems to fall by the wayside. A terrorist act, a Norwegian 9/11, becomes instead a Scandinavian Columbine, a senseless tragedy with no political angle whatsoever. This is missing an important point: that anyone can be capable of unspeakable acts if they believe themselves to be doing the right thing. You can see it in schools, where children are taught that Hitler was an insane lunatic who somehow bewitched an entire nation into committing atrocities, as though he were the only murdering dictator in human history. Nothing is as dangerous as the man who believes beyond a shadow of a doubt that what he is doing is right. We forget this at our peril.

The second troubling aspect is this diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. I’m not in a position to argue with forensic psychologists over the mental state of a man I’ve never met. Breivik may very well be schizophrenic; I wouldn’t know. What I do know is how this informs the societal image of what a schizophrenic is.

Due to having written a novel with a schizophrenic protagonist, I have a Google alert set up to notify me of news stories on schizophrenia. It’s a depressing spectacle, for the most part. Especially today. The Google News page for schizophrenia today leads with Breivik, of course. He’s followed by Anthony Rapoport, a Chicago man who beat his aunt to death with a baseball bat. Scroll just a little down the same page, and we have Nicholas Bendle, the California man who killed a complete stranger with a hatchet.

Scared yet? Apparently, the world is full of murderous schizophrenics who could snap at any moment and kill you for no reason! Even if they think they have a reason, as Breivik did, it’s the madness, not the ideology, that we should blame.

So far, so depressing, but none of this is especially surprising. The mainstream image of schizophrenia has long been that of a rampaging, murderous psychopath – well, that or someone with ‘split personalities’, a completely unrelated condition. We’re thinking of Norman Bates, not John Nash.

The truth is a little different. About 5 per cent of violent crime is committed by people with various psychotic disorders, including but not limited to schizophrenia. When you consider that roughly 1 per cent of the population suffers from schizophrenia, it starts to seem a little less scary.

In 1999, a study by the Royal College of Psychiatrists concluded that people with mental illnesses are far less dangerous than people under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and that dying at the hands of a mentally ill stranger is less likely than winning the lottery. But the media is naturally biased towards the unusual, the shocking, the bizarre. No one wants to hear about the 50 million people who didn’t win the lottery this week; they want to hear about the one who did. No one wants to hear about the schizophrenics who control their symptoms with medication and function highly in society despite their illness; we want the knife, the hockey mask, the Hollywood horror.

The truth is simultaneously more mundane and more horrifying: a supposedly sane person is just as likely to commit horrific acts as a schizophrenic. And whether Breivik is schizophrenic or not, it is his ideology that prompted him to murder innocent strangers – an ideology he shares with hundreds of sane people.

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