Is Hatred a Mental Illness?

Crazy Yelling Bearded ManFrom the tidal wave of devastation in the wake of the latest mass murder by someone whose hand was on the trigger of a weapon, the purpose of which is meant for obliteration of life, arises the question: ‘Is hatred a mental illness?”

Omar Mateen, a 29 year- old man who murdered with a purpose, 49 people and wounded numerous other in a venue in Orlando, carried hatred in his heart for those he perceived as threatening.

A New York Times article indicates, “Mr. Mateen had a chilling history that included talking about killing people, beating his former wife and voicing hatred of minorities, gays and Jews; most of his victims were gay, Latino or both.”

In this case, the patrons of The Pulse, a Gay club in Orlando who were enjoying an evening of revelry, when shots rang out, were part of the LGBTQ community and the majority were Latino.

A Variety of Opinions

When posing the question on social media, “Is hatred a mental illness?” I received mixed responses. Most, including other clinicians, were in agreement, that although entrenched hatred does not carry a DSM-5 code, it might as well, since it fuels the fire of violent criminal activity. One person expressed quite vehemently that calling hatred a mental illness, stigmatizes those who are clinically diagnosed.

Another career social worker expressed her professional opinion that it was not a diagnosable mental illness, but indeed was a learned behavior that was either planted and/or reinforced in the family of origin, social circles or culture in which the person was raised.

The lyrics from the classic song performed in the Rogers and Hammerstein 1949 Broadway musical South Pacific called You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught speaks directly to this dynamic:

You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!

Rogers and Hammerstein

There are those who would agree with both the lay person and clinician, as is expressed in an opinion piece, “In reality, none of these crimes are about mental illness, and saying otherwise is not only false, but it also perpetuates stigma that the mentally ill are dangerous, leads to more crime against the mentally ill and pushes those struggling with illness farther away from help.”.

There are a number of psycho-social factors leading to violent acts. This article is not intending to reinforce fears or stereotypes that those with mental health diagnoses are prone to violence.

An Expert Weighs In

Harvard University psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint, M.D. proposes the idea,

“Extreme racism is treatable, and sometimes even lesser forms of racism are treatable because they have psychodynamics to them,” he told Nightline. “They don’t exist as a social problem, they … exist as psychological problems inside the individual.”

From three decades of experience as a mental health clinician, I have witnessed first-hand the ways in which toxic hatred could be perceived as emerging from thought disorders or distortions. Those which clearly influence the formulation and sustenance of hatred include:

  • Overgeneralization: All people of a particular culture fit into a mold and are either completely good or completely evil. Likely the person will come to believe that all who are similar to him or her are glorified, while others who diverge from what is perceived as ‘abnormal’ are demonized.
  • Jumping to Conclusions: If a person believes that another is inferior by virtue of their gender, culture or sexual/gender orientation, they are more inclined to perceive ill will and develop a desire to defend or pro-actively attack.
  • Blaming: People who are perceived as threatening, are the reason why someone else isn’t getting ahead. “Immigrants are taking all the jobs.”
  • Emotional Reasoning: “If am thinking or believing something, it must be true.”
  • Fallacy of Change: “If only I exert enough influence or pressure, someone will alter their thinking and behavior to suit me.”

 Another factor may be the presence of Intermittent Explosive Disorder, the symptoms of which include:

  • Difficulty controlling temper
  • Unmanageable rage at times
  • Reaction to external stimuli that is in excess to what could be expected
  • Damage to property or assault on people when enraged
  • Substances exacerbate the anger

Interactions between these two dynamics fuels the fire that may be fanned by cultural and media input. Consistent reinforcement of previously held beliefs can reinforce the person’s conviction that the actions they are inclined to take are correct and justifiable.

Added to the mix in the case of Mateen, is the revelation that he himself used Gay dating apps, engaged in relationships with men and had frequented the bar where he unleashed his incendiary rage.  From The University of California, comes an article that explains the concept of internalized sexual stigma or the more colloquial term of internalized homophobia.

It has been defined as ‘the gay person’s direction of negative social attitudes toward the self, leading to a devaluation of the self and resultant internal conflicts and poor self-regard.’ (Meyer and Dean, 1998).

Or as “the self-hatred that occurs as a result of being a socially stigmatized person.” (Locke, 1998).

According to clinical psychologist Dr. Judi Addelston who was interviewed following the attack, “(He had) what we call internalized homophobia.”

She added that his faith tradition and interpretation of the strictures involved may have contributed to the internal struggle. “They hate themselves for their own feelings because they think this is a sin against God,” said Addelston.

According to Ilan Meyer, a senior scholar for public policy and sexual orientation law at the University of California, Los Angeles. “It’s a really simple concept unfortunately. All members of society are taught about conventions. We learn about stigma and prejudices about certain groups from a very young age. So when a person begins to recognize that he or she is gay or lesbian, there is already that negativity.”

Cognitive dissonance is also an aspect of this paradigm. In order for Mateen to do what he did, it is likely that he held the belief that he needed to externalize his self-loathing stance.

Leon Festinger, PhD. explains that, “There is a tendency for individuals to seek consistency among their cognitions (i.e., beliefs, opinions). When there is an inconsistency between attitudes or behaviors (dissonance), something must change to eliminate the dissonance. In the case of a discrepancy between attitudes and behavior, it is most likely that the attitude will change to accommodate the behavior.”

Perhaps, as news reporters had indicated, Mateen was attempting to ‘kill the Gay’ inside himself by executing others.

While there clearly are no definitive answers to this query, it provides food for thought when it comes to re-directing anti-social beliefs that could potentially prevent further death and destruction.


Meyer IH, Dean L. (1998) Internalized homophobia, intimacy, and sexual behavior among gay and bisexual men, in Stigma and sexual orientation: Understanding prejudice against lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals

Lock, James (1998). Treatment of Homophobia in a Gay Male Adolescent, American Journal of Psychotherapy

Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

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Is Hatred a Mental Illness?


APA Reference
Weinstein, E. (2016). Is Hatred a Mental Illness?. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 27, 2019, from


Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 18 Jun 2016
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 18 Jun 2016
Published on All rights reserved.