Letter as printed in Today Voices:
In the wake of the recent shootings in Newtown, it is easy to point a
finger at mental illness, alleging that since the gunman was said to
have Asperger’s Syndrome, then he was pre-disposed to commit such an
From this, it has been concluded that either society has to deny
people with mental illness access to dangerous weapons like guns, or
society has to address mental health problems in individuals sooner
rather than later. Early detection may prevent tragedy.
By shifting the cause of the recent shootings to mental illness as
opposed to gun ownership, for example, it encourages stigmatisation of
people with mental illness in society. For a reaction like this
assumes and perpetuates a myth that people with mental illness are
pre-disposed to violence, and that they are unable to take
responsibility for themselves.
But there isn’t a clear link between mental illness and violent
behaviour or tendencies towards violence. There is also no clear
causal link, that murderers do what they do because they are mentally
Further, it is a contentious question as to whether persons who are
diagnosed with mental illnesses are unable to take responsibility for
their actions. Why shouldn’t persons with mental illness who are
stable be treated the same as other members of society and not as
though they would fail to take responsibility for what they do?
In Singapore, we have a low rate of crime and gun violence.
Stigmatisation of people with mental illness is nevertheless
prevalent. From my personal experience, I have often been passed on
for a job interview, and even rejected after being offered a position,
when it became known that I have schizophrenia.
It is a fact that there are many people with mental illness in
society, and that most who are functioning effectively keep their
illness a secret, not declaring their condition to their employers.
This kind of secrecy not only is burdensome to the individual, it
breeds dishonest relationships in society. Most of all it discourages
individuals who need help from coming into the open and seeking help.
I therefore write with the greatest urgency to rethink and to
reconsider our assumptions concerning people with mental illness. Not
only are they unlikely to be violent, but they are possibly one of
your colleagues at work who has kept his or her condition a secret for
fear of being stigmatised.