Apparently Elliot Rodger was mentally ill (sort of), but he’s still not a “madman”.

Because I saw someone on Tumblr say “Stop saying he wasn’t mentally ill, he had Asperger’s” and I just couldn’t anymore.

(Edited version.)

The problem is, the idea people have in mind when they say that someone who’s committed a shocking crime is a “madman” or must be “unbalanced” or “insane”— that idea has only the most tenuous possible connection to actual mental illness. The fact that Elliot Rodger’s parents’ attorney says he was diagnosed with Asperger’s does not indicate that the people who called him a madman/etc. were right.

Obviously, the actual list of symptoms of Asperger’s Syndrome has nothing in common with the popular idea of the bloodthirsty madman. Even the most negative stereotypes of Asperger’s wouldn’t lead you to expect a mass shooting. You wouldn’t expect an Asperger’s diagnosis to mean someone was totally out of touch with reality, or with basic ideas of right and wrong.

The knee-jerk reaction to violence of “no one sane could do that” has nothing to do with what Elliot Rodger was actually thinking, it has nothing to do with Asperger’s, and it doesn’t even have much to do with mental illnesses or cognitive disabilities in general.

When people say “madman” or “insane” in this context, they’re clearly not thinking of, for instance, people with ADHD, depression, panic attacks, phobias, eating disorders— even though it’s things like these that make up the majority of “mentally ill” people. And the evidence bears out what I’m sure any of the people saying these things would tell you: they’re not thinking of real people who’ve been treated by a psychologist at some point, because the “mentally ill” people they know in real life obviously aren’t mass murderers. Mental illness does not make people any more likely to commit violence— not even the scary-sounding things like schizophrenia. (I unfortunately can’t find the source I’ve seen for this before, and this one is kind of academic-sounding, but it seems like a good summary and includes a lot of references.) That strong identification of indiscriminate violence with “insanity” does not come from people’s real experiences of violent crime or of mental illness, because most “mentally ill” people don’t commit violent crimes and most violence is not committed by “mentally ill” people.

But people latch onto it because we want to be able to explain violence.

Particularly, we want to be able to explain it without feeling close to it. We want to dismiss it as something we and the people we care about could never do. And we don’t want to think too hard about the reality of violence or the reasons people might have for committing it— we don’t want to believe there could ever be a reason for mass murder that would make sense to anyone. So it’s easy to write off big, scary violent acts as things someone could only do if they don’t really have a functioning mind.

But it’s wrong.

It relies on an inaccurate and very damaging stereotype of what mental illness means. And it provides an excuse for people who know perfectly well that what they’re doing is wrong.

So, yes, apparently Elliot Rodger had Asperger’s. And you can call that being mentally ill, for a certain definition of it. But the person you’re thinking of when you call Elliot Rodger or anyone like him a “madman”, or “insane”, or “unhinged”— that person doesn’t exist, or at most is incredibly rare. When people with mental illnesses commit crimes, it’s for the same reasons “sane” people do. Don’t write off violence that has a reason as senseless “insanity”, and don’t stereotype mental illness as inevitably leading to violence.

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