Voices | FOREIGN AGENDA

Linking mental illness to violence tarnishes an entire community

by Mark Bookman and Michael Gillan Peckitt

Contributing Writers

The arson act at the offices of the anime studio Kyoto Animation, sometimes referred to as “KyoAni,” that occurred on July 18, has been widely reported by media worldwide. The attack resulted in the deaths of 35 people with another 33 injured, and is one of the worst incidences of violence that has resulted in death or injury to happen in Japan.

The attack has grim echoes of the Sagamihara massacre, when on July 26, 2016, a former care worker at the Tsukui Yamayuri-en care home for the disabled in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, killed 19 people and injured 27 others.

A suspect in the KyoAni attack was arrested the day after the incident, and was taken into custody and then to the hospital as he had sustained severe burns himself. The police were unable to question the suspect as he was sedated, but details soon began to emerge.

According to CNN, “As they apprehended the suspect, police said the man spoke about his work being plagiarized but cautioned that they need to wait until the suspect is formally interviewed before confirming a motive.” It was also reported that, “Officers have so far been unable to question the man, who remains sedated in hospital owing to the severe burns he sustained during the attack.”

However, the same CNN report, which was posted online on July 20, also stated, “The police also said at a press conference on Friday that the suspect had ‘unspecified mental health issues.'” This came alongside somewhat similar descriptions of the suspect from outlets such as The New York Times, NHK and Kyodo News among others.

That bit of information led us to wonder how the police could come to the conclusion that the suspect had “unspecified mental health issues” without questioning him. One way to acquire that information would be to contact his physician, but medical privacy would probably prevent that physician from volunteering his records.

Other details of the suspect’s biography were released to the media, though. We learned that the suspect had previously lived in Ibaraki Prefecture and was arrested and charged with suspicion of robbery at a convenience store in 2012. He was sentenced to three years and six months in prison for that crime. It was also reported that he had been receiving welfare benefits and sometimes received nursing care due to issues with mental illness.

Perhaps it is justified to mention a suspect’s criminal record, and maybe he had been in receipt of welfare benefits and sometimes received nursing care because of his yet “unspecified” mental illness. These facts are not disputed. But it is also reasonable to ask why such information is released and presented to the public.

Information such as the suspect being mentally ill or being in receipt of welfare payments often has the effect of “explaining” a suspect’s actions when crimes are committed in Japan. This is a relatively safe country and incidents like the one at KyoAni can damage the “safe” narrative if they’re not paired with the excuse of mental illness or poverty, suggesting that those characteristics are what was behind what really caused the violence. However, the insidious little nugget that can come about from that line of thinking is that, at any moment, any person with mental illness could become violent.

A mention of mental illness can eclipse all other aspects of an individual’s identity, especially when they do something antisocial. They cease to be a person and instead become a symptom that needs to be treated, often via political reform. Such reforms almost always result in increased surveillance and public scrutiny of otherwise innocent persons with psychiatric disabilities.

Consider the interim measures introduced by officials after the Sagamihara massacre that called on prefectural governments to tighten their guidelines regarding treatment, aftercare and the compulsory admission of people suspected of having mental illnesses to psychiatric hospitals. As Shinya Tateiwa of Ritsumeikan University’s Institute of Ars Vivendi pointed out, those measures were a hasty and reckless arrangement that endangered the lives of already vulnerable individuals. We must avoid repeating similar mistakes and be cautious when formulating a response to the events that occurred at KyoAni last month.

What does a cautious response look like? For one thing, we must make sure to treat the suspect first and foremost as an individual with personal interests and motivations. The suspect does not represent the entire community of persons with psychiatric disabilities, nor do their actions necessarily reflect the needs and desires of that community. A cautious response would address the suspect’s social, political, economic and cultural background in its entirety rather than zeroing in on a single facet of their identity (in this case, reports that the suspect was visited by a nurse to assess his mental health after committing the crime of robbery).

If we treat the suspect as an individual and resist the urge for immediate political reform aimed at mental illness, we may not feel as if we’ve “fixed” the problem behind their actions. So how are we to mourn and find solace as a society?

Perhaps the answer is in line with what KyoAni President Hideaki Hatta has already suggested. He put forth an idea to demolish the burned out structure his company was housed in and replace it with a new park that features a memorial. A similar process occurred at the Tsukui Yamayuri-en after the Sagamihara massacre, and it was only after media attention shifted away from the suspect and the site of the attack that many victims and their families began to heal. After all, there’s a reason that graves can offer solace to those who miss their loved ones. A memorial is really no different.

July 26 marked the third anniversary of the Sagamihara massacre. Though it went by largely unnoticed by the media, it is still a good opportunity for those of us in and connected to the community of those with disabilities to reflect on the successes and failures of our responses to that horrific event. By doing so, we might find a productive way forward with respect to the attack at KyoAni and, of course, do better the next time.