Mental Illness Doesn’t Cause Violence

When will we learn that "crazy" isn't to blame?

I can’t stop thinking about Andrew David Thompson. It’s cluttering my mind (which is pretty cluttered to begin with). It’s the kind of thing where you know you should stop thinking about it, but as soon as you think that you’re thinking about it again, you’re already thinking about the thing you don’t want to think about. You know? Of course you do.

Andrew David Thompson was a med school student at Michigan State University. Now he’s in jail awaiting trial for 13 felony charges of animal killing and one misdemeanor count of animal cruelty. Between now and last September, according to various accounts, including his own, he murdered 13 Italian Greyhound puppies in a bizarrely systematic fashion. He’d order them through the mail from a breeder, get the puppy, and then kill it shortly thereafter, always—he told friends—in frustration with the dog’s misbehavior. Some dogs didn’t even last one day. And the situation was unlikely to improve: When police came to talk to him, there was yet another Italian greyhound puppy in his closet—this one alive, but severely injured. He said he threw them against the wall or to the ground, or beat them. His roommate heard them screaming. He told a friend he got into a “vicious cycle” with the puppies and was glad to be arrested.

He also suffers from bipolar disorder, according to news accounts. That’s only been mentioned in passing. But the mention is unsettling. I have an odd feeling I know where it’s headed.

The perception that people with mental illnesses are violent is probably the most persistent fiction about “crazy” people. In a 2003 study, researchers at the University of Chicago found that 75 percent of people surveyed believed people with mental illnesses are dangerous and should be feared.

This is not accurate. Violence is primarily determined by socioeconomic and sociodemographic factors. The majority of violent crime in much of the U.S. is committed by young males. Does that mean that mental illness is more prevalent in young males? Of course not. Additionally, violent crime is more frequently seen in disadvantaged areas. Does that mean poor people are “crazier” than rich people? Please. One look at Donald Trump’s comb-over and you have the answer to that question.

A couple weeks ago in West Philly, two young male muggers shot their victim in the foot when the victim questioned the veracity of their firearm (er, bad idea, that). Are we to believe these young men must be mentally ill? Violent crime happens within a context. Sometimes a perpetrator is drunk. Sometimes he’s angry at his wife. Sometimes he sees an iPhone in a Penn kid’s hand and decides to steal it. Sometimes he’s an idiot in a flash mob.

I’m sensitive to this issue because I have bipolar disorder—yet the only violent thing I do to my dog is kiss her too aggressively. But I’m sensitive to this case for another reason: I lived with a dog abuser.

First we had a beagle-dachshund mix that my partner beat regularly when I was out of the house. I never knew when I came home what I would find. The dog wasn’t always visibly injured, but her face would tell the story. I gave her away.

A few months later, in dangerous denial, I bought a dachshund puppy. This dog was far more vulnerable to his attacks, and the trips to the ER increased. The injuries were severe. I gave her away.

Unfortunately, I was unable to take appropriate measures to protect those sweet creatures from the start—and to protect myself. Yes, mental illness was involved, but it was my own. My partner wasn’t mentally ill. He was just fucked up.

Is Thompson mentally ill? I don’t know, but I doubt very much that such information would be explanatory—or exculpatory.

For the next few months, there’s all kinds of paperwork that has to be done to get ready for the court cases. I’m hoping between now and when the case burbles up again in the news, I’ll be able to think about other things.