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Extremism is not a mental illness

Monday 18 March 2019

Following Friday’s appalling terrorist attack, the Mental Health Foundation has been disappointed but unsurprised to see some people speculating the terrorist must have been mentally ill. We understand why it’s comforting to think this. We all want to think the terrorist is an outlier, an outsider, different to us. We want to try and understand this incomprehensible tragedy, to find a simple answer that helps to explain what happened, to make sense of the shooting.

But this answer is nothing but a fiction, and it’s one we must not hide behind if we are to heal from Friday’s terrible events. Shooting people is not a symptom of a mental illness. White supremacy is not a mental illness. When we talk about mental illness in relation to these kinds of attacks, most of us aren’t talking about the facts of mental distress; that it is an experience more than half of us will share and a sign that someone needs help and support. Instead, we’re using “mentally ill” as a short-hand for “violent” and “threatening” and “a risk to the community.” This is deeply troubling.

The terrorist is clearly an extremist, but it is an unfair leap to assume we can blame mental illness for his actions.

If we let mental illness be the scapegoat here, we let ourselves and our country off the hook from reckoning with the racism, white supremacy and anti-immigrant sentiments that directly led to these attacks. We distance ourselves from the terrorist and let ourselves dismiss him as a ‘lone wolf’. We sigh with relief that he’s been arrested and is unable to do further harm without acknowledging there are others who share his ideology who will continue to live and work amongst us and make life difficult for immigrants and minorities. We fail to listen to the voices of the Muslim community and their daily experiences of prejudice and abuse. We avoid doing the hard and painful work required to examine the deeply-rooted racist ideologies, beliefs and behaviours that can be found everywhere in New Zealand. We fail to look at how we personally excuse or condone racism by our actions or our inaction.

People who live with serious mental health issues in New Zealand are already some of our most vulnerable people. Frequently the recipients of prejudice and discrimination, they continue to be misunderstood and incorrectly blamed for a disproportionate amount of violence in our communities. We say this so often that it starts to sound like white noise, but we think it bears repeating now: people with mental illness are far more likely to be the victims than the perpetrators of violence – in fact they are fourteen times more likely to be victims of violence than people who do not experience serious mental illness.

When you connect radical extremists with mental illness, you make it even harder for people with mental health issues to live in their own homes as members of their own communities. You make it harder for them to ask for help. You reinforce myths that they are violent and different, untrustworthy and unreliable. And you do it to make yourself feel better, not because it’s the truth.

Trauma has been inflicted once again on Christchurch and especially on the Muslim community. So many people who fled violence and extremism were killed or hurt or had to watch others die. It is impossible for this not to have an effect on our mental health – particularly for those who were directly impacted. Everyone affected will need all our support and love in the days, weeks and months to come. We can all play a role in supporting each other to get through. It is vital that the support offered to the Muslim community is culturally appropriate and informed.

There is, however, a connection between this event and mental distress that doesn’t get much airtime, and this connection is why, if you’re wondering, the Mental Health Foundation is speaking out about the wider issues of racism and white supremacy.

The connection is this: being on the receiving end of racism, discrimination, exclusion and bullying are all risk factors for mental distress. They all contribute to suicide.

New Zealanders have increasingly committed to taking mental health seriously, to making sure that people who live with mental health problems get the support they need to recover and live full lives. We have also been talking more and more about suicide prevention and what we can do to reduce New Zealand’s suicide numbers.

Here’s one thing we can do: give nothing to racism. We cannot and will not see fewer people experiencing mental illness or a reduced suicide rate unless we do something about racism and discrimination. Until people feel able to be their whole selves, express their identity, faith and culture without judgement, fear or discrimination.

New Zealand cannot hide from the fact that there have been many Kiwis who have felt comfortable publicly and privately declaring mistrust and contempt toward Muslims, immigrants and other people different to them. Casual racism emboldens extremists and puts minorities at risk. The burden this places on their mental health cannot be overstated.

We add our voices to those of most New Zealanders who feel deep sadness and anger about these terrorist attacks. We know many of us are already reflecting on how we can help, how we can keep our communities safe, how we can embrace diversity and stop anything like this from ever happening again.

We all have some hard work to do to ensure the New Zealand Muslim community is safe here now and in the future. We have to be brave enough to confront racist behaviour, words and ideologies and we have to start changing hearts and minds to create a more inclusive and accepting society where everyone can enjoy good mental health and wellbeing. Some of us have more work to do than others but we all have a role to play. We believe New Zealand is up to the challenge.


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