I would bet there are few who have been unaffected by the recent events in South Carolina -- a young man bursting into an African-American church, and gunning down nine people during a prayer group.

One more example of carnage in a society with 88 automatic weapons per resident.

One of the fiercest debates, I have noticed, has been around the media coverage of the perpetrator, Dylann Roof, and his state of mind: apparently he "had mental health problems".

This isn't the first time mental illness has been thrown around following a mass shooting: the Isla Visa shooter had "Aspergers", the Sandy Hook gunman had "an anxiety disorder", the Virginia Tech shooter was "suicidal", and the guy who opened fire on a movie theatre, dressed as The Joker, was "psychotic".


Newsworthy though the mental disturbance news angle may seem, it is actually highly problematic and damaging. Firstly, the perpetrator's actions are excused: he was just a nice, normal well-brought-up guy, who went a bit mad and lost the plot.

Secondly, it adds to a pervasive narrative of prejudice, stereotypes and stigma.

Last year, when Dunedin man Edward Livingstone killed his two children, after being issued a protection order by his partner, it emerged he was "being treated for mental health issues".

Some believe if these issues were adequately treated, the tragedy could have been prevented.

Yet more ammunition against the mentally ill.

Research from the Mental Health Commission has found very little correlation between mental disorders and violent crime.

For example, while it was thought murders were on the rise after the major psychiatric institutions closed in the 1980s, it has actually been homicides committed by those with no mental illness which have increased.

And, those with mental health difficulties are more likely to be victims of crime than the perpetrator.


Why then, after disclosing his bipolar disorder at his workplace, was a member of my family fired because his colleague was "terrified" of him?

Why then, did a 2015 survey find over 50 per cent of New Zealanders would feel uncomfortable having a neighbour who was mentally ill?

Personally, I can't say news reports linking mental illnesses with people who turn a gun on a church congregation, a primary school and their own children are helping matters.

As a society, we have made strides when it comes to approaching mental illness. But, it's time we stopped using mental illness as a synonym for "racism", "misogyny"or "domestic abuse". Maybe then, we can help make stigma a thing of the past.