Not Dangerous

TW: Violence

I am diagnosed with a mental health condition, and I am not dangerous.

In the wake of even more mass shootings in America, I am confronted again and again with the misguided belief that people living with mental illness are a risk to the general public due to inherent violent tendencies. After shootings, people look for signs and symptoms, poring over the shooter’s behavior, and if there’s no motivation that makes sense, mental illness is always there to serve as an excuse.

Whenever I hear this, I cringe. It’s true that there are people with diagnosed mental health conditions who have committed violent crimes, but it often gets conflated to the entire population as a risk factor. 

In my experience, this has made it harder for my friends and I to speak out about our problems, especially any sort of negative thoughts we have that may involve violence in some way. And yet, I learned in therapy that “a thought is a thought, not a threat” - which means that even if an intrusive thought pops its way into my head, it’s not going to actually happen unless I choose to make it happen.

I have never experienced an intrusive thought about harming others, but a mindfulness-based OCD workbook I have details these sorts of thoughts: the fear that, by doing or not doing a particular compulsion, you will “snap” and hurt someone. I can’t even imagine what it must be like to confess thoughts like that to a therapist when I’ve had so much trouble confessing other, less “dangerous” thoughts. Maybe this is why these thoughts take root and have time to fester, without the guidance of a therapist to help banish them.

I’m someone who has trusted scary thoughts to a therapist, who helped immeasurably by listening with kindness rather than being afraid. I’ve experienced the fearful kind, the ones who assume that any thought that pops in my head is something I feel the need to do. As if I have no self-control, or even want a thought like that to be there in the first place. As if it’s a threat.

For me, thoughts like that are few and far between, and I have good ways to help myself feel better if a thought scares me. But my favorite coping mechanism often comes under fire: video games.

Two “risk factors,” and I am still not dangerous.

When a childhood friend showed me how to play Grand Theft Auto when I was five, I was too afraid to take the controller. I stared wide-eyed as her character stole a car and mugged someone at gunpoint. I was more curious about the taboo of the character swearing than shooting people. I was diagnosed already, but no hidden desire to commit acts of violence was awakened in me that day.

For many years, my parents didn’t let me have video games at home, more for fear that I’d get obsessed with them in a way that would distract me from school than anything else. When I did finally start playing games, they were games like Pokemon where the only violence was cartoonish. When I started playing more mature games as an adult, I never felt any sort of association with the violence, and often played through battle scenes as quickly as possible to get back to the story.

And yet, I was still afraid to play games with guns. Something in me still believed what I heard, that there could be something dangerous inside me that would get triggered if I pressed a button and killed something on-screen. I stayed away from games with guns for years, and when I played violent games, I was always more interested in the characters’ stories - what else was going on with their character that could be fun to think or write about?

Last year, my dad and I started playing a game that involves guns, Overwatch. I liked it because all the characters have names and stories and diverse backgrounds supported by comic books and short movies that detail an expansive and fascinating world. Plus, it’s a great way to spend time with my dad, as we can play together even if we’re in different states. In the game, I can choose to play a character with a gun and shoot it. But that doesn’t make me want to go anywhere near a real-life gun or ever harm anyone.

For me, it’s all about the difference between stories and reality. I love writing stories, both on paper and in my head, and even if I’d love to live out the plot of some of my favorites, my stories are not true. And the story of people living with mental illness as hidden killers is not only false, but also dangerous. It can create a vicious cycle of stigma that prevents people from admitting that they need help for any sort of mental illness, which can lead to all sorts of things. Maybe, for some small percentage of people, that could mean violence - and then another story fuels the fire.

I can’t pretend to understand everything behind the recent spree of shootings in America. It scares me just as much as it scares my friends and family. But I don’t think it’s fair to anyone to assume that just because they share a characteristic or two with someone who has committed a violent crime, they’re going to be next.

So yes, I live with mental illness, and yes, I play video games, some of which involve violence. But I’m also a dog lover, daughter, Italian food aficionado, cosplayer, friend, writer, proud alumna of my college, employee, Jew, and so much more - and I can only hope that, even with these ideas about mental illness and video games so prevalent, people can see me as simply Ellie, and not feel afraid.

Ellie, a writer new to the Chicago area, was diagnosed with OCD at age 3. She hopes to educate others about her condition and end the stigma against mental illness.