One night this week on Stephen Colbert’s CBS-TV talk show, he had what now has become a much-publicized conversation with guest Bill O’Reilly. If you don’t know much about Mr. O’Reilly, he’s a busy man – political commentator, author, historian, syndicated columnist and host of a TV commentary program on the conservative Fox News Channel. He can be insightful and always is outspoken and opinionated, never shying away from saying something provocative and occasionally controversial.
Colbert is one of the funniest people working on TV these days. Monday’s show was much more sobering dialogue than comedy. The subject was the mass shooting in Orlando last weekend, when a gunman killed more than four dozen people and wounded more than 50, many still in grave condition.Colbert led the conversation into a direction that sparked some emotional thoughts from O’Reilly. The duo had an enthusiastic back-and-forth exchange about declaring war on Islamic terrorist groups and Donald Trump’s use of terrorism to boost his popularity.
Tucked in there were the words “mental health.”
O’Reilly engaged in a full-on rant, during which he essentially said “guns don’t kill people, terrorists kill people” — though he advocated restraint on the sale of semi-automatic assault rifles such as the one used by Orlando shooter Omar Mateen. Somehow, Colbert managed to wedge in this thought.
Colbert: “Is this a mental health problem at all? Because this guy, his wife said he had a history of domestic abuse, he was bipolar and on steroids.”
To his credit – and with my gratitude – O’Reilly quickly dismissed that go-to excuse laid upon nearly every mass murderer.
O’Reilly: “No. … Because this guy (was) evil. Evil!”
Clearly, Colbert had read some media reports about Mateen’s “mental instability.” His ex-wife said he had bipolar disorder. “He was mentally unstable and mentally ill,” Sitora Yusufiy told reporters, something she based on his violent and abusive behavior toward her. His Muslim Imam, Syed Shafeeq Rahman, said the shooting had nothing to do with Mateen’s allegiance to ISIS and thus implied the mental instability was a better explanation.
Meanwhile, no one yet has found an official diagnosis from any doctor. A writer at the website www.healthyplace.com had this to say:
Here’s the thing, information from an allegedly abused ex-wife is bound to be tainted. She has said all sorts of horrible things about him in the interviews she has done with the media. Are these things true? I have no idea. But regardless as to the fact that he may have been violent and abusive, that doesn’t mean that he had bipolar disorder. Yusufiy is not a psychiatrist and, more specifically, she certainly isn’t Mateen’s psychiatrist. What qualifications does she have to say that “he was bipolar?” And why should we believe her? She never said he had a diagnosis of bipolar – i.e. was actually diagnosed by a professional – she just said he “was” bipolar, suggesting that she assessed him as such, apparently due to his abusive actions.
None of us should be surprised by the words of his friends or the reactions of the media. This happens every time such a horrendous act takes place.
Thankfully, when given the opportunity to blame mental illness – in this case bipolar disorder – O’Reilly instead blamed something much more sensible: The killer wasn’t physically ill or mentally ill, he was spiritually ill to the core. His actions weren’t “crazy” or “insane” or “unstable” as much as they were pure evil. And unlike many observers and public commentators in this and other mass murders, O’Reilly evaded the opening to link mental illness and evil.
Writer Holly Baxter, at the London Independent website, said: “Our rush to call a killer mentally ill seems to come from a sort of wonky well-meaning: people assume that in order to commit a massacre or a particularly sadistic murder, the perpetrator would have to be in a state of mind so utterly different to any normal person that they may as well qualify as unwell. A sick act, surely, demands a sick mind.”
So uninformed reporters and talk-show hosts, pressed by deadlines to find a compelling focus for the story, take the lazy way out and assume mental illness. An analysis by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health researchers said 40 percent of all national news stories about mental illness, studied over a 20-year period, connect such illnesses with violent behavior toward others. Meanwhile, less than five percent of all violence in this country is related to mental illness. (Source: June issue of Health Affairs.)
“Despite all of the work that has been done to reduce stigma associated with mental health issues, this portrayal of mental illness as closely linked with violence exacerbates a false perception about people with these illnesses, many of whom live healthy, productive lives,” said Emma E McGinty, leader of the study. “Anyone who kills people is not mentally healthy. We can all agree on that. But it’s not necessarily true that they have a diagnosable illness. They may have anger or emotional issues, which can be clinically separate from a diagnosis of mental illness. Violence may stem from alcohol or drug use, issues related to poverty or childhood abuse.
“But these elements are rarely discussed. And as a result, coverage is skewed toward assuming mental illness first.”
Why does this really matter? One in every five Americans will suffer from a mental illness this year. Throughout their lifetimes, about half of all people in this country will receive a mental illness diagnosis. That includes me, many members of my family, friends, and folks who have reached out to me about themselves and people they love.
I have met dozens of people with bipolar disorder. None of them ever have indicated a moment’s inclination toward violence in my presence. If a violent incident of any severity would occur, I am certain it would be the result of something in their character or personality or situation, not their mental illness. I guarantee that a person with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, major depression, severe anxiety or another mental illness would be much more dangerous to themselves than to anyone else.
The next time such an event as the Orlando shootings occurs – and sadly, there will be more – let’s stick to the facts and not leap to foolish speculation or assumption. And the facts likely will include this: Blame evil, not mental illness.