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Mental Illness as Scapegoat – Not Every Poor Behavior is Mental Illness

I’ve been thinking about this topic for awhile now. Some of it has been brought on by hearing many of the comments about the Joker movie, some by the way people react to violence, and even some on the way political discussions tend to take place in the US these days. It all came together though, when I stumbled into this article from 2018 about narcissists, Abuse is Not an Illness, It’s a Choice.

In it, the author makes plain that there is a difference in how we classify something like narcissism and how we look at mental health struggles.


One of the biggest mistakes I see victims of narcissistic abuse make is to feel sorry for their abusers because their abuser is “mentally ill.” This is wrong. Narcissism is not the same as mental illness. While someone with a mental illness might inadvertently cause chaos around them due to their mental state, most of them sincerely don’t mean to hurt others. Many mentally ill people struggle with shame caused by their desire to be there for loved ones when their mental illness prevents them from doing so. It’s important to understand that a narcissist does not feel this way. A narcissist willfully chooses to harm others.

Narcissists, psychopaths, sociopaths, and those who make up the cluster B personality disorders are notoriously responsible for the bulk of physical, psychological, and sexual abuses that exist in the world. Cluster A and C disorders can be potentially be dangerous for the person who has it, but thankfully not considered dangerous to others. What makes cluster B different is a lack of empathy. Through overt or covert means, they deliberately seek to harm. Not only do they not care about those they hurt, many of them get some form of pleasure or release out of it.

Personality disorders are different from mental illnesses, yet many people who are untrained in the distinctions often use the terms interchangeably.

Now, I have highlighted those two sections because I believe they get to the heart of what I’ve been thinking about, above and beyond personality disorders. Yes, you can make the argument that someone who shoots up a public place is suffering from a personality disorder, but we shouldn’t necessarily lump them in with everyone dealing with a mental health issue. The lack of empathy shown by taking someone else’s life might seem like a crazy concept to many of us, but our lack of understanding something, or someone’s actions, does not a mental illness make.

It is this easy explanation that then gets carried into everyday interactions and where we wind up hurting ourselves. Simply put, when we see someone acting selfishly, or in some way that doesn’t make sense to our way of thinking, it’s too easy to assume they must be mentally ill. I see it in political discussions everyday. “I can’t believe anyone would think that way, they’re crazy, out of touch with reality”, is the sort of statement we seen thrown at political opponents by all sides.

Here is what I think is happening in our hyper-connected world. As we encounter people with different experiences from ours, different views, and people who take actions that we would not take, we reach for the easiest explanation that makes us feel more comfortable about ourselves. Much like we find the reason that something bad happens to other people to make ourselves feel safer, thereby blaming the victim, when we come across an action, or a belief, that runs counter to our own, rather than be challenged to understand the nature and variety of humankind, or the completely selfish and narcissistic ways we act sometimes, it’s easier to simply declare these other people as insane and move on with our lives.

But, it is really not that simple. The truth is much more complicated than that. We can’t simply look at an act of evil, any act of selfishness, and make mental illness the scapegoat. Because, in the end, we are all guilty of actions of selfishness and ego. The dividing line that we seek to find, wherein the people with personality disorders are over there, and us normal folks are over here acting the “proper way”, doesn’t really exist that clearly. Oh sure, we can look at some of the extreme outliers, and make a case, but when we do, we are also creating a much larger problem.

I think this reaction actually creates two problems.

First, and most importantly, it adds to the stigma of people dealing with mental health issues. How would you feel if you were struggling with depression, or being medicated for bipolar disorder, and everyone around you kept talking about how people with mental health conditions are dangerous, and need to be monitored and restricted? To hear people refer to mental health struggles as ticking time-bombs? Mass murderers in waiting?

This is the ultimate fake news. The vast majority of people dealing with mental health issues are more dangerous to themselves, and we are more dangerous to them, than they are to the rest of society. But, a handful of people who may or may not have been impacted my a mental illness do some horrible things, and suddenly, it becomes the easiest thing to blame, and who cares if we lump millions of people in to this misconception, we feel safer!

The second thing this does, admittedly, the more ephemeral reason I oppose this thinking, is that it blinds us to the fact that we are all capable, at any time, of doing selfish and destructive things to each other. A narcissist does not abuse their spouse, or children, because they are mentally ill. Many acts of public violence are not carried out because the shooter was too crazy to know any better. (There are some examples of full on delusions causing a violent reaction, but they are actually quite rare.) No, each of these people looked at what they were going to do to another human being, and decided they didn’t care. They made that decision. Whatever influences or bad information might have been in their head at the time, they still refused to care about the people they were hurting.

This is, without getting into a long religious discussion, evil.

You may be uncomfortable with the word, or the concept, but we cannot have an understanding of human nature, differences, violence, abuse, etc. without acknowledging that human beings are capable of much evil. All of us. Again, why does this matter in this concept? Because as we divide ourselves into “people who think like I do”, and “people who are clearly just crazy”, we have a tendency to overlook our own capacity for selfishness and lack of empathy. We forget that we too, act evilly sometimes. We hurt people, on purpose, and we lack any kind of remorse for it. We aren’t “those” people, with their mental disorders, we are smart, good, people. “Right-thinking” people, even. Therefore, when we act selfishly, it’s right, no matter who it hurts.

I believe we all need to be reminded of all the ways in which we choose to hurt people. I believe we need this humility about ourselves and our actions. I believe humility is the thing we continue to see less and less of in the world, and it’s hurting us. Humility is seeing the value in other human beings, even if they look, act, believe, and speak differently than we do. Seeing ourselves as no better, and no worse, than the other people around us, is the key to empathy, to acting in kind, unselfish ways, to valuing ourselves and our own place in the world. Humility is understanding that the world is not fair, it is not only safe for good people and dangerous for bad people, but it is made up of billions of individuals, who make their own individual choices about how to act. It is made up of people who make conscious efforts to fight the evil and selfishness they are capable of, and others who do not. And it made up of billions pf people who will make mistakes, and fail, at times.

It’s understanding that not one of us is exempt from making those mistakes, and that all, at some time in our lives, have hurt people.

Does that make all of us crazy? Does it mean we are all just evil and to be avoided? Does it mean that everyone is really just good if we can just get them properly treated?

Or is it none of the above? Because our lives, and our human nature, are messier than all of that. Messy enough to defy easy answers, so don’t accept them. They probably hurt more people than you know.



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