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Rape Culture and Mental Illness

Reflections on the tragedy in California.

June 1, 2014

I have read and heard a great deal of speculation this week about Elliot Rodger's mental state. The usual argument goes something like this: he must have been mentally ill, because no one in their right mind could commit such an atrocity.

This belief is understandable. Normally empathetic people have trouble envisioning the mindset of a mass murderer, and so it is easy to leap to the conclusion that he must be a one-off, a "crazy person." But this assumption is false, and damaging, for two reasons:

1. People with mental illnesses are more likely to be the victims than the perpetrators of violent acts.

If you have ever struggled with anxiety or depression, to the point where you consulted a therapist, you are mentally ill according to the American Psychological Association. If you were raped or otherwise assaulted and sought help, you were probably diagnosed with PTSD, another mental illness. If you are depressed, anxious or traumatized to the point where you imagine things (even in a mild way—say, you imagine you hear the doorknob turning when you are alone in your house and scared, but there is no one there, or you "see" your beloved cat in a shadowy corner before remembering that the cat died 6 months ago) many mental health practitioners would classify these as hallucinations and give you the additional diagnosis of psychosis. Would any of these symptoms make you more likely to commit a hateful, violent act? Absolutely not.

There are some psychiatric disorders, such as Intermittent Explosive Disorder, that do predispose individuals to physical violence. However, the only diagnosis that has, at this writing, been released is Aspergers syndrome, which doesn't.

Labeling someone as mentally ill without further qualification makes as much sense as lumping appendicitis in with esophageal cancer, and it causes more damage because people who are already anxious, depressed, traumatized, struggling with psychotic symptoms, or otherwise impaired have enough stress without everyone talking as if they were about to go on a bloody rampage.

2. Dismissing an individual as "crazy" erases the larger social context.

Family therapists coined the term IP, or "identified patient," to describe the individual (often, but not always, an acting-out child) who expresses the dysfunction of the entire family system. The other members can pass for "normal," at least in comparison, because this person, often the weakest link due to youth, temperament, or other factors, is most identifiably disturbed. However, when the IP grows healthier, another part of the family (for example, the parents' marriage) begins to deteriorate, because the entire system is flawed and will keep throwing up IPs until a) it collapses or b) the system itself is addressed and healed.

Elliot Rodger was an IP of rape culture. So was Chris Plaskon, who allegedly stabbed his friend to death last month because she turned down his invitation to the prom. So are any number of rapists, on campus, in the military, in the office, in the home, many of whom get away with it because the system itself supports the attitude that engenders these violent acts—in this case, the belief that women don't own our own bodies, and don't have the right to decide whom we associate with. And when one member crosses the line and does something worse, such as murder, calling him insane allows the other members of the system to dissociate from him and deny responsibility or participation.

If this sounds nonsensical to you, think about Nazi Germany. Most people didn't work in the death camps, operate gas chambers or perform bizarre experiments on living human beings. But those "monsters" couldn't have existed without the support of a culture that normalized beliefs that we now recognize as insane.

Maybe one day the denial of women's sovereignty over our selves will also be recognized as insane. We can only hope.

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Susan O'Doherty

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