By Paul Shen
A recent study by two professors at the University of Missouri has conclusions that should alarm anyone with a mental illness. About 50% of Americans have one at some time in their lives, so a lot of people should be alarmed. The professors wanted to find out if judges and juries respond differently to people who commit crimes while suffering from a mental illness. They wanted to know if it mattered whether the illness is the result of an accident like brain injury or if it resulted from abuse.
What came out of the study was not what they expected. The big dividing line turned out to be genetics. If the illness was thought to be genetic, perpetrators were seen as having more responsibility and being more deserving of punishment than either an accidental or abusive origin. They found that if a mental illness is described as being genetic, juries are willing to convict and judges deal out harsh punishments no differently than if no mental illness were involved, while a mental illness caused by accident or trauma reduced potential convictions and sentences.
This sounds a bit like when people who are good looking get off with lighter sentences. It’s not like people choose their DNA, any more than they choose to get hit on the head or abused as children. However, this result is not likely to be universal. American culture places great emphasis on genes, going back to the Jim Crow laws that said that if a person had relatives who were African-American, they were genetically predisposed to violent, criminal behavior and were “incurably inferior.” Aside from the fact that there is no “black” gene, the problem with this idea is that people don’t choose their DNA. So why don’t the genetically disadvantaged get any sympathy?
Maybe the reason is that people don’t think you can do anything about your genes, making the problem incurable. If this were true, then you might conclude that someone who has a genetic illness will always be dangerous. The problem is that this idea is just plain wrong. Neither mental illness nor genetics are that simple. Epigenetics, the way environment influences genes, is a new science, but one that explains what really happens. Genes have switches to turn them on or off. The DNA of our parents determines which genes you have, but those genes continue to adapt wherever you go.
So, how does this apply to mental illness? It turns out that few mental illnesses are purely genetic. They start out as genetic predispositions that are triggered by life events. For a person with one genetic profile, being abused as a child does little to affect them, but for some the stress activates genes that lead to mental illness. The more often a switch is turned on by stress, the stronger effect that gene will have. It is interesting to note that individuals who are predisposed to mental illnesses such as anxiety or depression, when they grow up in peaceful, safe environments, do not develop illness. The environment, which for humans mostly means the social environment, chooses among the genes a person has.
This idea that were are all slaves to our genes has a long pedigree in Western history. It is probably just about as old as civilization itself, and has lasted so long not because it is true, but because it is useful. People who have power in society do not want those who don’t making trouble for them, so they claim to have been born superior and deserve their wealth and power, while those who are not wealthy and powerful are not worthy, and incurably so. After thousands of years science has revealed the lie, but it has yet to seep into our way of thinking far enough to influence how we perceive victims of mental illness.