Categories: AnalysisCanadian NewsOpinionPolitics

Mental Illness does not Explain Terrorism

In the wake of the recent mass shooting in Toronto and with the release of Ayanle Hassan Ali, a man diagnosed with schizophrenia who stabbed three Canadian soldiers in 2016 while shouting “Allah Akbar”, there has been a lot of emphasis on the topic of mental health in our national media.

Contrary to the angle that some of the prominent mainstream outlets have taken, particularly with the case of the Danforth shooter, I will argue that giving such credence to purported claims of illness is a huge detriment to the vast number of people who struggle with mental health issues and live peaceful lives. A privation of sanity and mental wellness can most definitely lead to tragedy, but the type of premeditation required for acts of terrorism entails that we not dismiss agency and the possibility of evil so readily.

My ire with the media started on July 23, one day after the terrorist attack, when the CBC brought on a psychologist at the top of the hour for a 5-10-minute interview on what we can do better as a society for the mentally ill and how we could have prevented Faisal Hussain’s murderous rampage.  All of this before any motive could be determined.

First a few basic facts about mental Illness: people with mental illness are less likely to commit violent crime than the general population. They are more likely to be victims of violence than the general population. Finally, when people with mental illness opt for violence, overwhelmingly the number one target is themselves (second a close family member).

This brings us to Faisal Hussain, who managed to get a gun, which is impossible to do legally in Canada if you have a history of mental health issues.  Meaning that he most likely got it on the black market, which would require connections, implying that his trip to Afghanistan may not have been as innocent as we are being lead to believe.

Couple this with the CBS report that he was visiting pro-ISIS websites and leaving sympathetic comments, one could argue that we have a case of premeditated evil. Ayanle Hassan Ali also had written down his murderous intent and justifications prior to committing the act.  This doesn’t sound like psychosis to me.

Now I actually do have some experience with psychosis.  My best friend was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 2012, and has experienced the worst of psychosis, and has had delusions that encouraged him to utilize violence.

Yet when it came down to it, like most people in this situation, he opted for self harm.  Here was his experience of psychosis: He had a delusion that the Hells Angels were threatening his niece, they wanted him to hurt someone or else they would harm her, he spent a day cutting himself failing to make a fatal one.

Then they demanded that he kill someone right now, so he grabbed a knife and threatened the closest person to him which happened to be a close friend, and after deciding that he couldn’t kill someone, he walked out into the streets in shame and took off his pants, because he had to “embarrass himself in front of the hot chick upstairs” to atone for his failure. That is a psychotic episode…

I know that the last half of that paragraph might be very hard to understand, but that is how it is with schizophrenia – the motivations are shifting and unclear, and the reasoning is highly disjointed.  I understand that not all psychotic episodes are the same and that mental illnesses differ in their manifestations from person to person.

However, the level of planning and premeditation that went into the attacks of Faisal Hussain and Ayanle Hassan Ali are so far out of the norm when it comes to schizophrenia and psychosis, that attributing their actions to “mental illness” falls very short of an explanation or justification.  In fact, it contributes to the stigma that the mentally ill are deranged people that are a danger to our society.  This is the very thing our media outlets try very hard to fight against, for one week in May at least.

For clarity, here are few things I am not saying.  I am not claiming that these two men were not mentally ill, or that mental illness had nothing to do with their actions.  I am trying to make the point that we have good people and bad people, and in these cases, it looks like the actions of evil men with mental illness.  Second, this is not an attack on the “Liberal media”.  All media outlets are guilty of playing the “mental illness” card when a tragedy does not fit their narrative, and my criticism applies in all scenarios.

If we truly want to get to a place where we can live in a society that treats mental health seriously and effectively we need to have the ability to have tough conversations.  Following the Danforth shooting we need to be able to speak openly and honestly about Islamic terrorism, guns, crime, mental health, fentanyl and policing without getting into shouting matches.

In terms of mental health, we have two dominant narratives “they are sick people who can be dangerous” and “they have a mental illness, it’s not they’re fault”, both of these are unhelpful.  We need to find an area in-between demonization and infantilization if we are going to have any semblance of a productive dialogue.  Right now, in our increasingly polarized climate there is little hope of this happening anytime soon, and the cost at the moment are the 1 in 3 Canadians who suffer from mental illness.

Daniel Bordman

Daniel was born and raised in Toronto. He started doing stand up comedy in Kingston while getting his degree from Queens University. Since then he has gone on to win the 2012 Bragging Rights comedy contest in Toronto, and in 2012 he co-founded Civil Space Network, a show dedicated to political satire.

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