Ariel Castro imprisoned and raped three women for over a decade. There are many words you can use to describe a person like this — monstrous, terrifying, cruel, brutal and even inhuman — but there are also many words you shouldn’t use. This is a lesson we can only hope NBC anchor Brian Williams has realized, after commenting that Castro is “arguably the face of mental illness, a man described as a monster.” This comment might seem like a throwaway remark that doesn’t do much harm, but it represents a much deeper misunderstanding of the nature of mental illness and it has many professionals in the field raging about the consequences of such a careless statement from a national news anchor.
Brian Williams was introducing the hearing for the sentencing of Castro when he made the comment. The issue with his statement is immediately obvious, him having described a kidnapper and a rapist as the “face of mental illness.” Many might not see the issue with this—Castro didn’t appear consistent or logical in the courtroom and his behavior couldn’t exactly be described as normal—but the problem with the statement runs deeper. Equating violent crime with mental illness plays into a widespread misconception, simultaneously implying that most violent criminals are mentally ill and that most mentally ill people are in some way violent.
The comment comes hot off the heels of Dr. Phil’s (arguably more) idiotic comment, which runs along the same lines. When one of his guests implied she had a problem because she was stalking her boyfriend, he commented that she wasn’t insane because “insane people suck on rocks and bark at the moon.” There is clearly a desperate need for a conversation about the assumptions people make about mental illness. Just in case you’re reading, Dr. Phil, the mentally ill aren’t rock-gobbling werewolves. They’re just people.
The Rules for the Press
Interestingly, the press stylebooks repeatedly advise against this type of idiocy—something Brian Williams and Dr. Phil should have to rewrite 100 times like misbehaving schoolchildren. The Associated Press (AP) Stylebook says, “Do not describe an individual as mentally ill unless it is clearly pertinent to a story and the diagnosis is properly sourced.” Neither of these things is true in the case of Ariel Castro because there are no indications that he has a mental illness. Much more relevantly, the guide rightfully goes on to say, “Do not assume that mental illness is a factor in a violent crime, and verify statements to that effect.” Regardless of the total misunderstanding his comment betrays, if he had done his job properly, Williams would have avoided this entire affair.
Mental Illness and Violent Crime
The most troubling association hinted at by Williams is that there is some kind of undeniable link between mental illness and violent crime. In fact, according to Candy Crawford—the president of the Mental Health Association of Central Florida—only about 5 percent of violent crimes are committed by people with a mental illness. Additionally, there is a widespread public misconception that mental illness is linked with violent crime, when in reality mentally ill people hardly contribute to the overall rates of violent crime and are actually more likely to be on the receiving end of violent attacks. The true causes of violent crime are much more complex, apparently stemming from a complex interplay of factors including substance abuse, childhood abuse or neglect and stressful life events. Mental illness may play a minor role, but a violent criminal can never be legitimately described as the face of mental illness because of their crimes alone—some people can just be that sadistic.
Demanding an Apology
A spokesperson for NBC said, “Brian immediately realized his poor choice of words, and he updated the broadcast to omit that phrase for later feeds … We sincerely apologize for the unintended offense caused by these remarks.” However, many people believe that a more direct apology is required, and merely omitting the phrase from future broadcasts is hardly enough. The stigma attached to mental illness in the U.S. scarcely approaches the stigma in countries such as China, but it is still a serious issue. Comments like these reflect a deeper misunderstanding of the nature of mental health problems, which shouldn’t be brushed aside as a “poor choice of words.” The “unintended offense” caused by the remarks won’t just go away if it isn’t repeated, because the underlying assumption still remains. President Obama’s recent call for an end to the stigma attached to mental illness has never seemed so pertinent.
For anybody still unconvinced that what Williams said was wrong, let’s pretend that he chose to attack a different group in his statement. For example, would you think it was no problem if he’d said that Ariel Castro was “arguably the face of the modern male” because of his kidnapping and raping? Would there have only been such a relatively minor backlash if he’d have said that Castro’s behavior makes him “the face of Latin America”—or would people have rightly demanded that Williams be fired for inciting such mindless and baseless hatred for no reason whatsoever? The mentally ill can be the subject of unfair discrimination just like people of any gender, race or nationality, and making blanket assumptions about them on national TV is just as wrong.