In the wake of the tragic and, thus far, unexplainable act of violence that took place at Abbotsford Senior Secondary last week the mental health community is battening down the hatches and getting ready for a fight with a familiar beast. We know it well, and we know it's coming for us like it does after every random act of violence that people can't explain with their conventional labels. This beast will hunts us through news outlets, politicians, pundits and everyday people who are already blaming the Abbotsford stabbing on mental illness despite the fact that no police or medical experts have identified Gabriel Brandon Klein as having any recognized mental health disorder. It is going to attack us with misinformed articles and callus memes that will paint those with mental health conditions as dangerous and unstable. We should be arming ourselves with facts and statistics that make it inescapably clear that being mentally ill is far more likely to make one a victim of violence than a perpetrator, and we should be prepared to be frustrated when we are subsequently ignored. We should prepare ourselves to do battle with stigma, to defend ourselves, our loved ones and to remember thousands of Canada’s most vulnerable people who are victimized every year and receive very little sympathy, support or attention.
And we should also be prepared for the hulking, blood thirsty beast that is violent media culture, because it is coming for all of us. A cellphone video of the stabbing is already making the rounds on the Internet and the news. Some outlets are complying with the police and their request not to show the video or link to it in their articles. But some, and many private citizens as well, have ignored the request and are still circulating the video.
Who knows why exactly? There are probably as many answers to that question as there are people clicking away. The why is secondary to the question of what kind of harm this behavior is going to do to us as a society if we continue to proliferate it. There are so many different ways in which repeatedly exposing ourselves to this level of savage, random violence is doing more harm than good.
In an interview with the Huffington Post British psychologist Dr. Graham Davey, who specializes in the psychology of media violence, explained how that exposure can contribute to the development of mental health difficulties even in those personally unaffected by the events it describes: “Negative news can significantly change an individual’s mood — especially if there is a tendency in the news broadcasts to emphasize suffering and also the emotional components of the story,” he said. “In particular... negative news can affect your own personal worries. Viewing negative news means that you’re likely to see your own personal worries as more threatening and severe, and when you do start worrying about them, you’re more likely to find your worry difficult to control and more distressing than it would normally be.”
Mentally healthy people can develop anxiety, depression and even mild PTSD symptoms when exposed to the worst and most violent things the media has to offer, but what happens when people who are already struggling with mental health difficulties encounter them? “Trauma triggers” describe the sometimes innocuous stimuli in the environment that can cause someone to vividly recall a particular traumatic memory. Though usually associated with PTSD they are by no means exclusive to that disorder and can manifest in any number of related conditions derived from violent trauma. A trauma trigger can set off a chain reaction in someone dealing with a mental health condition that leaves them wracked with severe anxiety, or can push them into panic attacks, flashbacks and deep depressions.
Overall, people are becoming more and more aware that this obsession with violent media isn’t doing anyone any favours. The mentally healthy invite dysfunction into their lives, and those already coping with mental health conditions find themselves caught in a sudden onslaught of acute triggers for the behaviours they’ve been working to manage and heal from. None of this even begins to touch on the intense trauma caused to the families and friends of the victims by having attacks on their loved ones publicized like celebrity gossip
So what can we do? Recently people (for the most part) have started to embrace the idea of ‘trigger warnings’ on violent media that might provoke reactions from those suffering from PTSD, however the greatest change an average person can effect in a culture of violence obsession is achieved simply by removing yourself from it. Clicks drive the sensationalist media and depriving them of that attention and the profits that accompany it is the best way to push it out. Don’t click, don’t share, don’t watch. Block posts containing it on social media, and don’t let it slide when friends and family participate in the voyeurism, but instead question why they are perpetuating such a toxic cycle.
Don’t feed the beast when the simplest and most effective thing you can do is simply starve it out of your community.