Everyone knows that New York City is a great place for people watching. Its buskers, immigrants, and various eccentric characters of local legend can enable tourists to have a truly exciting visit without requiring them to pay extra at the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty.
Exciting as it may be, people watching in New York can be dangerous, as evidenced by Jermaine Himmelstein, better known as the “Free Hugs Guy,” who has a long history of violent and predatory behavior to those women who approach him for the free hugs he advertises. He made local headlines just days ago after he was arrested on Thursday for attacking and robbing a 22-year old Canadian woman after she refused to tip him for a hug. Covering the incident, The New York Times reported that Himmelstein’s mother has said her son is autistic. While his disability is not an excuse for his aggressive behavior, the Times’ reporting on it helps draw attention to the often problematic ways the media talks about mental illness and disability and violence.
Although Jermaine Himmelstein demonstrates that there are indeed people with mental disabilities and illnesses who threaten those around them, it is well-documented that such people are the minority. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, not only are no more than 5% of violent acts carried out by mentally ill people, but those with mental illnesses are ten times more likely to be victims of violence than the general population. A study carried out by the US Department of Justice from 2007 to 2009 had similar findings about people with disabilities. The findings of these studies demonstrate that Jermaine Himmelstein’s violent behavior, as well as such other prominent violent crimes carried out by those with or alleged to have mental illnesses and disabilities, such as Sandy Hook Elementary School gunman Adam Lanza. UC Santa Barbara shooter Elliot Rodger was also widely reported to have had autism in the wake of his crime, even though the evidence for such a diagnosis was questionable at best. Regardless of whether Himmelstein, Lanza, and Rodger had mental illnesses or disabilities, the official statistics show that their actions make them part of the exception rather than the norm.
Ultimately, it’s fair to conclude that media coverage of the mental health of the minority of violent criminals with such illnesses and disabilities hurts the majority of people with such conditions who are not violent. Preexisting stigmas surrounding mental disabilities and illnesses make such reporting even more harmful to them. For such reasons, when someone such as Jermaine Himmelstein commits a violent crime, we all should divert our attention from their mental health or ability and focus on their actions instead.