Every time you turned on the television this holiday season, there was another mass murder. With each report, the connection between crime and madness seemed to become stronger, so that by New Year's Day, any visitor to the U.S. would think this was a country of violent crackpots.
In fact, violence and mental illness rarely go hand in hand. Yet the specter of violence is often used to thwart the nation's policy of placing the mentally ill in special housing in the community.
No one would argue that mass murderers are ordinary folk. Clearly a high percentage appear unstable and psychologically stressed.
R. Gene Simmons Sr., 47, the retired Air Force sergeant who went on a shooting spree that left 16 dead in Russellville, Ark., is currently being held at a state mental hospital in Little Rock. Victims included his wife, daughter and grandchildren. The man had been indicted in New Mexico on three counts of incest in 1981 and subsequently fled with his family to Arkansas.
In Algona, Iowa, Robert Dreesman, 40, opened fire on his parents, his sister and her three children before shooting himself in the head. Apparently he was jealous of the attention his sister was getting during her visit, and news accounts reported that he had "undergone counseling for mental problems."
In Oklahoma City, Virgil Knight, 26, shot his ex-wife, two of their three children, his former sister-in-law and her boyfriend and then killed himself. He was reportedly suffering stress from his recent divorce.
These are obviously very disturbed people. But are they in any way representative of the mentally ill? ::
There are a multitude of psychological reasons behind an act of violence: fear, anger, feelings of inadequacy, depression, conflicts in relationship, financial problems. "They see no other way out or they want to strike back," said Dr. Ronald Litvak of Columbus, Ohio, psychiatrist and consultant to the division of forensic psychiatry in the Ohio penal system.
That, however, does not mean they are psychotic as defined by the diagnostic guide of the American Psychiatric Association.
"Some are just mean," said Litvak.
In many instances, mass murders clearly have nothing to do with mental illness. This holiday season ended with a shooting spree in Nashua, N.H., that left four men dead and two others wounded. The gunman was shot to death by a police officer. It now appears that the killings were drug-related.
Still, with so much press attention to these senseless and shocking crimes, the public is left with an exaggerated notion of the murder-and-madness connection.
To begin with, mass murders (killings that involve more than four people) are rare: roughly 36 a year, compared with 20,000 "regular" homicides.
Mental illness, on the other hand, is very common. At any given moment, the American Psychiatric Association estimates that up to 45 million Americans have some form of mental illness that could benefit from professional treatment. Roughly two out of 10 people will develop depression at some point in their lives.
Nevertheless, there is still a stigma to being "crazy" and a fear of people with mental handicaps. Sometimes these patients are disturbing. They may be depressed or retarded, and they may lack the social skills to relate to "normal" people.
But does that mean they are dangerous?
The answer from the experts is a loud "no."
"A certain percentage of the chronically mentally ill are violent," said Dr. Robert Wettstein, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburg. But given the prevalence of homicide and violent crime in the United States, Wettstein concluded that "violence in our society has almost nothing to do with mental illness."
In other words, a mentally ill person is no more likely than anyone else to be violent. ::
After three decades of the national policy of deinstitutionalization, care of the mentally ill is still in shambles.
There are many reasons for this, but one contributing factor is that whenever health officials try to establish housing for the mentally handicapped, they usually encounter resistance from community residents. These people say they are afraid that the shelter may be a source of violence and abuse.
In a well-run program -- in which people with mental handicaps are carefully screened, and care is skilled and attentive -- such concerns are unwarranted.
The problem of finding proper community housing for the mentally disabled is critical. This is evident from a walk down the streets of Washington. And in Northern Virginia, the few group homes available to mental patients are full, and there are long waiting lists.
It would be helpful if, after each news report of mass murder, the commentator would advise viewers: People who are identified as having a mental illness and who are being treated for it and live in well-supervised housing are probably the least likely to commit mass murder.
It is those who are suffering and are not getting any treatment that you have to worry about.