Evil, Mental Illness, and the Responsibility of the Free

Featured — By on December 17, 2012 at 3:00 am

Almost two years ago, I fell into a job as a mental health support worker. My role entailed supporting people with schizophrenia and other mental illnesses to live in the general community, people who would have been, and actually were, institutionalised just a few years ago. A restructure of mental health services in this country (Australia) means they are deemed well enough to live in the community.

It was a challenging job. The first major hurdle was becoming accustomed to what it actually means to be schizophrenic. I was seldom afraid for my safety, despite my clients often relating how they heard voices and had impulses telling them to hurt me or others. They rarely wanted to obey these voices or impulses, and part of managing their illness was practicing, and being supported to, remain insightful regarding their symptoms. Part of my role was to supervise medication. It was my experience people with these kinds of mental illnesses rarely become violent, and usually only do so if under unusual duress emotionally or physically, or if they stop taking their medication.

Of all the amazing people I met and worked with when I was a support worker, I never met a single one who I would consider to be truly bad or evil, even though the things they did were sometimes confusing or even violent, and things they said could be irrational or upsetting. One of my clients had murdered a man. I never felt unsafe when I was around him, his demeanour conveying both the shame of his past, and his gratefulness for being spared a life in the prison system. He deserved, and earned through hard work, a past suppressed, a new name, a chance at friendship and peace, and a quiet life – and death – amongst fellow free humans beings.

One of my clients was a divisive little bastard. He begged his psychiatrist for valium, which he sold to friends to buy dope and smack. The combination of his drug habit and his anti-psychotics made him both provocative and lazy. He harrassed his neighbour – also a client of the service - for money and smokes, until one day the neighbour locked himself in his apartment with a support worker, brandishing a knife and vowing to kill both of them unless the perpetrator was relocated. Nobody was hurt, and the neighbour was hospitalised briefly, whilst the other went cheerfully on with his bastardry. Evil? No. He was just doing what they all had to do. Learned to do.



I’ve been revisiting that year I spent working as a mental health support worker in light of recent events in Newtown, CT. Apparently, there have been 13 mass shootings in the U.S. since Colombine, but as far as I am aware, this is the first time the phrase “mental illness” has been directly connected to such an act. Although we all probably thought he and other similar perpetrators were mentally impaired or unwell, nobody has really came right out and said it before. We’ve used another word instead.


As if mental illness and evil were irrevocably interchangeable.


Undoubtedly, shooting small children with an automatic firearm is an evil act, but we must be very, very careful not to connect the concept of intrinsic malevolence with a particular kind of person, or a certain state of being. Mentally ill persons are no more capable of evil acts than the rest of the community. In fact, the mentally ill persons I love and respect are generally extremely vested in the bringing about of safety, peace and tranquility for themselves, and others.

I’ll also say that mental illness in our community is not a case of “us” and “those others”.  We seem to love to discuss those with mental illness as if they were not us, and this certainly makes it easier to condemn the acts they commit we deem unacceptable, and condemn wholesale those who commit them. Mental illness as a diagnosis covers a wide variance of disorders and issues, and the only precursor for most forms of mental illness I’ve observed generally appears to be possession of a human brain.

The young man who recently committed the shootings in Sandy Hook has been described as “different” and “socially awkward” – key words which seemingly give us permission to make him into “one of those others” who are “not like us”. His difference, whether it was categorically a form of mental illness or not, has somehow allowed us to justify our placing him outside the tribe. He rejected his community by being slightly sick in the head, and his gross act of extreme violence means we can now reject him right back.

We call him evil, because he first called us gun fodder.

And about that. In Australia, since a certified mentally ill young millionaire went on a killing spree in Tasmania in 1996, we have comparatively strict gun controls. This means for us now when the mentally ill, or the criminally disturbed, or the simply very angry in our community are provoked by their inner voices or their emotions, to act out, the worst they can usually do is brandish a very sharp knife, or a very hard fist. Several mental health support workers a year in Australia are hurt by their clients in acts of violence involving knives and fists, and a few over the past few years have been killed. But our gun controls mean there are fewer guns available for mental health clients to point at people. This is a very good thing.

If the U.S.A. intends to improve mental health services without also improving gun controls, all that’s likely to be produced is a spate of gun-related deaths against mental health workers. Improving mental health services is only half the picture. The other half is making sure the availability of those weapons capable of causing immediate and widespread catastrophic loss of life is severely limited.

Many argue it will be enough to limit gun availability to those deemed mentally fit. Apart from the difficulty involved in deciding exactly who is and isn’t mentally ill enough to possess a gun, it could also be argued merely feeling the need to possess and bear a piece of artillery designed to kill a hundred human beings in a hot minute is actually a sign you have some kind of mental illness in the first place.


Many have claimed it all started when they stopped little Americans praying in schools, whatever “it” is. Mental illness, and murder for that matter, have been around a lot longer than schools and prayer. I heard somebody say in the last couple of days “Cain is still killing Abel.” I think that’s about right.

Adding prayer back into the school curriculum may cure us of our apparent godlessness, however, the godlessness it cures us of is merely the apparent kind. The rote prayer of infants, whilst certainly poignant to us, and interesting to God, has not been sufficient thus far to cure our society of real, live murder, or real, live mental illness. And why are we legislating our children pray for our protection from evil, when we, their parents and communities, refuse to lay aside the exact means by which that evil is perpetuated?

Or is it evil (read mental illness) we are actually hoping to eliminate from our communities by having children pray in school? Is this actually an attempt at a kind of cleansing out of the “different” – the variant, the socially awkward? Is school prayer a means by which we hope to cure ourselves of mental illness wholesale, replacing it with Christianity, as if mental illness and Christianity could not possibly coexist in the human brain?

I’ve met an awful lot of people with schizophrenia who pray to yours and my God, and sometimes to other gods, with results. And this prayer, even when it was to our God, did not cure them of their schizophrenia.

Legislating for the reinstatement of prayer in schools may be a desperate attempt to cure us of mental illness and its effects, but neglecting to legislate at the same time for adequate support for the mentally ill and tighter gun controls is nothing less than grossly inadequate and piously naive. Evil is not of “the others, the “not us” – we do it. In fact, it could be said neglecting to care for the vulnerable and marginalised in our community is just as evil an act as taking up arms against one other.


The mentally ill amongst us, as with all our marginalised groups, are survivors by necessity. Margin is not created in a vacuum – if the mentally ill are marginalised, it’s because the rest of us marginalised them. And they, the marginalised, are simply trying to survive us – the healthy, the whole and the free. How ironic these lengths the free seem prepared to go to, to try and survive the marginalised right back again. We have our children pray to inoculate ourselves against whatever it is they have. We legislate for the right to bear arms against them just in case they bear arms against us. But they are not them, they are us, and whatever it is they have wrong with them, we have it too.

It’s time. Not just for improvements to mental health services, and acknowledgement of the issues faced by those living with a mental illness, and their families and communities. Not just for an end to relaxed and politicised gun laws. Not just for an end to the fundamentalist attitude toward mental illness generally, and the perception it’s a kind of evil to be scourged and condemned. It’s also for us time to acknowledge real, authentic evil is not simply the removal of the innocence, safety, or rights of the few amongst us who are free. It’s time to acknowledge evil is also the refusal of the free to advocate with courage and conviction for the innocence, safety and rights of all.



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  • TK says:

    I am sure that I am in the minority in thinking that “mental illness” played very little role in the terrible tragedy that took place in Connecticut on Friday December 14. But with that said it is time for better mental health services (world wide).

    Our motivation (for better mental health service) should be because those individuals (and families) that struggle with metal health issues deserve to be treated with Dignity not so those who are deemed to be “mentally healthy” (and their families) can feel safe.

  • karenzach says:

    We are such a violent/fear-based culture, Jo. Nothing compels Americans like fear. Nothing.

    • Jo Hilder says:

      It’s baffling to us here in Australia why exactly that is, Karen. What on earth could the most powerful nation on the earth have to feel so afraid of?

  • Soror Ayin says:

    “And they, the marginalised, are simply trying to survive us – the healthy, the whole and the free.”

    Never in my whole life have I met a psychologically well individual who really truly understood what it feels like to be mentally ill. Until now. Jo, what you’ve said captures my mind-state perfectly. I’ve learned to survive depression. If I hadn’t, I’d have committed suicide back when I was 14. My real struggle is to survive the healthy, particularly the ones who sit in judgment of me and think that my disorder is all my own fault. Thank you for this post, Jo.

  • AC says:

    Long article, jo I had the exact same job as you in the US, NJ to be exact….you are pretty much on the money with your analysis,

    I will add one thing which may have come into play and that’s a client refusal to take meds and the resulting detox (or simply unmedicated) from psychotropics which can lead to major decompensation. I had a schizophrenic under this scenario prick me with cuticle scissors, I was fine and didn’t even know he have the minor dash till after I was certain he was on his way to the hospital…..most people who struggle with mental illness are not violent, in fact these are lovably wounded & broken souls that have touched my life in many fruitful ways….may God Bless the afflicted, the chronically ill, and the wounded Christian warriors that await the day they will be made whole…..it’s the day I long for as well! And I have see Gods word be a great help to the troubled mind!

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