If you recall any news before the Boston Marathon bombing and the chaos that followed you may remember hearing about the resolution of the Connecticut legislature’s months-long fumbling, stemming from the slayings in Newtown, which resulted in the consideration of Assisted Outpatient Treatment (AOT) laws and the passage of ‘An Act Concerning Gun Violence Prevention and Children’s Safety.’ Attempts to explain and legislate against further massacres have, not surprisingly, focused on a debate about gun control. However in a state that’s home to several firearms manufacturers (such as Colt Defense in West Hartford) and – like most other states in the Union – has a powerful NRA lobby, the focus has been deflected away from limiting the flow of guns in general to limiting civil rights in relation to gun ownership. Here, I want to explore, in the context of recent debates and Connecticut legislation, the relationship between fear and the ways in which leaders of our so-called democracy justify the erosion of civil rights and the rights of those folks labeled “mentally ill” in particular.
I first learned about the significance of our country’s Bill of Rights around the same time I started on my first doses of SSRIs for depression and suicidal feelings. At the same time I was learning in school about the “inalienable” freedoms to which citizens of the United States are entitled, I was learning in a psychiatrist’s office about how I might be a “danger” to myself and lose some of these freedoms “for my own good.” I don’t claim that I was conscious of the contradictions at the age of 13 or 14, but the significance is not lost on me now.
I learned about the 1st, 2nd and 4th Amendments, among the rest, and it’s these three to which my focus is now particularly drawn. The essential freedoms of speech, the right to bear arms, and the right to due process are among the most formative ideas of this country. Yet, these rights are also among the most flagrantly violated in the name of psychiatric treatment; especially under the terms of involuntary commitment or its (euphemistically-named) cousin: Assisted Outpatient Treatment (AOT).
In particular, our country has a long and embattled relationship with the 2nd Amendment, but the industries supporting the sale of firearms are definitely among the most powerful.
When doing a search engine query for “CT gun manufacturers” the first thing to pop up is an article from NBC News called:
As humorous as I find this headline – given the fear about “insane” people getting hold of firearms – I think it reveals a lot about the legislators and general public’s relationship to guns, civil rights and “mental illness.” A major news source is drawing attention to “insane” crowds feverishly buying up guns (“anything semi-automatic,” in the words of one frantic customer) and no one is calling for motions to commit any of these folks? That, to me, is “insanity.” I say this half in jest and half awestruck.
I recently attended a rally and lobbying day at the Massachusetts statehouse geared toward opposing many of the same types of legislation that has just passed or been considered in CT. One memorable moment of the day came when one legislator brought forth the following counter argument relating to guns and restricting the purchasing power of those who have received psychiatric support. From a more “consumer”-based and yet very clever approach this man cited that nearly half the population of the US has probably received psychiatric support at some point in their lives: for depression, post-partum depression, anxiety or any other host of so-called psychiatric concerns. That fact alone, he argued, should give the NRA and gun manufacturers pause about supporting and lobbying for databases that potentially render a huge segment of the population ineligible to buy guns and ammunition. Now, take this argument for what you will, but the fact remains that the right to bear arms is a constitutional entitlement of citizenship in the US.
So, following the logic here, if legislators and gun rights advocates betray their positions of power by further eroding certain constitutional rights and sacrificing a base of customers in the process, then from where do the motives for this type of action arise?
Throughout the past century our country (and certainly the states of CT and MA are no exceptions) demonstrated the many ways a person’s constitutional (and I would argue human) rights can be suspended. If I’ve seen any comparable politics of fear and discrimination since the flagrant equating of Muslims/Arabs with terrorists during the most raw months and years following 9/11 it has to be the recent spectacle of courtroom drama, media blitz and legislative confusion linking gun violence with those labeled “mentally ill.” The point at which the American public and its branches of government allowed an extreme transgression of civil liberties in the aftermath of 9/11 (and also stepped up funding a whole industry of private companies supporting anti-terrorism and homeland security both within our borders and beyond) provides some precedent for what’s happening today in supporting discriminatory legislation restricting the lives of those labeled “mentally ill.”
While talk of violence with guns and bombs founds the debate of restricting these civil liberties, there is a different and less widely acknowledged violence in the mental health system and in calls to expand its power through AOT and databases of those who have sought psychiatric support. As someone involved in peer advocacy and Alternatives to Suicide peer support groups in western MA, I can tell you that this less discussed violence is real and sometimes part of the law. In addition to likely being over-enforced and fundamentally flawed, the current involuntary commitment laws in the state of Massachusetts are insufficiently counterbalanced by any more rights-based legislation (such as the state’s Five Fundamental Rights legislation).
Involuntary commitment for folks expressing suicidal thoughts – as I’m sure many of you already know firsthand or otherwise – might involve traumatic interventions by cops (with guns), being strapped to a restraint board, being forcibly tranquilized by way of syringe and the suspension of certain civil liberties. Part of the violence (beyond the obvious physical trauma) is rooted in exceptions to citizens’ 1st Amendment protections when involving mentions of suicide, and part is in denying a clear “due process” of appeal for folks subjected to court-ordered commitment; let alone preventing court-ordered commitment in the first place. To be deemed an “imminent harm to oneself” is often, legally, one step away from being deemed incompetent to make any decisions about one’s life and one’s body.
Instead of discussing these maddening things, the major focus of psychiatric treatment and commitment laws in this country has very recently and very often been geared toward treatment for folks with “homicidal” tendencies. Not only is this focus offensive to me for the unfounded linking of gun violence and those who have received psychiatric support but also because it entirely shifts focus away from the coercion and violence of this country’s current system of so-called psychiatric “treatment” – especially as it pertains to people expressing suicidal feelings.
In my worldview, the violence and harm done to folks in the name of suicide prevention (in “doing what’s best for them”) is far more damaging than mental health school screenings, databases and ever-expanding commitment laws are ever able to be helpful in preventing the violence of school or movie theater or temple massacres.
Let’s not forget about the massacre of six people of Sikh faith in Wisconsin, supposedly mistaken for Muslims by the shooter, and the subsequent suicide of the white assailant. For legislators to assert that these efforts are in the name of safety seems more a protection of their credibility than that they do, in fact, have answers for how we prevent more of these atrocities — and may simply be fear; responding to the ways that actually preventing such tragedies still remains out of their control.
Fear, indeed, affects all seeking to prevent further Newtowns. The fear of being the victim of gun violence in the US is very real and certainly (if statistics are any guide) more so in many inner cities or in domestic disputes, than in predominantly white suburban schools. The tragedies in Boston – and the unprecedented response of frightening numbers of law enforcement – have left scars on victims as well as an ominous glow over how the country will respond in the weeks and months following. More legislation from fear, and sacrificing civil liberties seems a possible event on the horizon.
If we are to prevent our communities from being increasingly governed by reactionary policies and desperation, we all need to speak up. And so I want to encourage you as readers and citizens to consider these topics further and find your voice (if you haven’t already) in hopes that putting more of this writing out into the world will actually cause people to pause and reflect on the ways our country seems to value violence and retribution over human and civil rights.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.