The National Rifle Association (NRA) proposed that a national registry of people with mental illness be created to limit their ability to purchase guns, yet the NRA is not interested in reasonable gun safety laws and restrictions on certain kinds of firearms with high-capacity magazines. So what would be next? Registries listing socially isolated people, teenagers with aspergers whose mothers teach them how to use firearms? Maybe left-handed red-heads with fiery tempers? The bottom line is we don’t know who is going to kill, but those with a mental health diagnosis are not likely to commit crimes of violence based on that diagnosis.
According to Paul Appelbaum, a psychiatrist and the director of the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons’ Division of Law, Ethics, and Psychiatry:
“Gun violence is a mental health issue only to a very small extent and to a much smaller extent than most people assume. Most gun violence is just not committed by people with mental illness. Were we somehow to stop violence by anyone with a mental illness — as unlikely as that outcome might be — we would be safer, but only a teeny bit safer. As much as these incidents attract everybody’s attention and concern, they are a tiny fraction of the people who get killed in this country every year. Mental illness is the cause of fewer mass shootings than the public perceives. If you look at the lists that are put together of those kinds of events, they are primarily family and workplace violence episodes. Finally, persons with schizophrenia are more likely to be the victims of violent crimes than they are to perpetrate them.” (From article by Jeffrey Young, Huffington Post 1/31/14)
Thanks to movies and the media, the diagnosis of “mental illness” incites fear in people, even though 1 in 5 of us will be diagnosed at some time in our life. We want an explanation for violent behavior. We want to believe that we can identify unstable people who might open fire in a school or at a congress woman. We need answers to ease our questions and fears, but most of those responsible for the recent mass shootings would not have been on a registry for either mental illness or previous violence.
Of the two young men described below, the NRA would have the second one on a registry, but not the first.
“He was one of those angry drunks who blacked out, but not before blacking more than one-eye in bar fights, and family fights, and he spent nights in jail after drinking and fighting. A young man, and owner of many guns, he disagrees with background checks for gun owners. After three attempts at month-long treatment facilities, he continues to abuse alcohol.”
“Another man diagnosed with schizophrenia reports a schoolyard scrap once in third grade, but dislikes and avoids confrontation. He is employed part-time, lives quietly by himself and enjoys dinner with friends a couple times a week. He does not own a gun, never used one, and has no interest in ever using one. If his illness worsens due to anxiety or stress, his voices may increase telling him that he’s no good and never has been, or that he should board a bus and move to another state. He sees his therapist twice a month and his psychiatrist monthly. He has not had a serious setback for several years.”
If you discover your next door neighbor has the illness called schizophrenia, bi-polar, or major depression would you be afraid? Avoid him or her? I have been employed at two psycho-social rehabilitation facilities for adults with mental illness, and spent several years working with children diagnosed with mental illness who were wards of the state due to parental neglect or abuse. Day in and day out for years, I have hung out with people with mental illness. They are fun, funny, bright, creative, particular, or messy, annoying at times, kind and lovable. They have goals and dreams. They have college degrees or haven’t finished high school. They are a microcosm of every population. They are you. Maybe you have diabetes or high blood pressure, which affects your mood with worry, or your mind if your blood sugar level is off, but no one is afraid of you or avoids you because of your illness. You have no stigma working against you.
When an act of violence occurs, we know something is wrong with the person firing guns, raping, stabbing, any brutality. What incites a person to kill, and how close are any of us to pulling a trigger? Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from military service or other traumas, pushed or bullied one time too many? Is it childhood abuse resulting in lack of self-worth, which often results in substance use, too many prescribed drugs, despair and confusion that becomes anger, sadness, and a desire to die and take others along?
BBC News carried an article by Dan Edge from This World:
Seventeen US soldiers from a Colorado military base who mostly served in Iraq have been linked to violent killings and attempted killings since their return to US soil. Three of them came from one platoon – highlighting how a generation of American soldiers struggle to cope with life after military service. More than half of the platoon said they suffered from psychological problems after Iraq.
A healthy person must be trained to kill. Santa Fe author Craig Barnes writes of this in his book In Search of the Lost Feminine.
The evidence is overwhelming that men have to be raised, desensitized, and given a rationale for killing. They shrink from it naturally. In World War II, 75 to 80 percent of riflemen did not fire their weapons at an exposed enemy, even to save their own lives and the lives of their friends. This is such a problem and so undeniably the natural reaction to combat that the U.S. military was forced to undertake a radical change in training and conditioning. By the time of the Vietnam War in the 1960s, and entirely because of such training and desensitization, the non-firing rate had been reduced to only 5 percent. (Dave Grossman, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, 1995).
Men could be trained to kill, but more importantly, they had to be trained to kill.
“Studying nonviolence is not for the faint or weak of heart, nor conformists or the close-minded,” Colman McCarthy wrote in the syllabus for his Alternatives to Violence seminar. “Instead, it is for those who are intellectually brave, spiritually alive, socially engaged and lovers of long-shots.”
Mary Clare Fischer interviewed McCarthy for the University of Maryland’s Independent Newspaper, The Diamondback on October 2012:
For over 30 years, McCarthy has taught more than 10,000 students alternatives to violence. In 1966, he became the speechwriter for Sargent Shriver, and from there to writing for the Washington Post, and McCarthy spoke with many well-known peace-makers.
“We are not wired to be violent,” McCarthy said. “You have to learn how to be violent, and you have to learn how to be peaceful. We have the capacity to go either way.”
So he became a peace spreader, like those he’d interviewed who came before him. Starting at the School Without Walls in 1982, McCarthy introduced his students to an alternative lifestyle, sidestepping homework and exams in favor of discussion and analysis
McCarthy volunteered at a Washington D.C. high school to teach peace studies. By this point, McCarthy had already expanded his teaching schedule, adding Wilson High School, Georgetown University Law Center, American University, The Washington Center for Internships, and The University of Maryland to his resume. After the termination of his column, he offered lessons to juvenile delinquents at the Oak Hill Youth Center.
We cannot predict who will kill, but we know that violence begets violence. Perhaps violence should be a diagnosis of its own? Our culture would be diagnosable with its epidemic enthusiasm for violence. Continued episodes of TV dramas beginning with a gorgeous murdered woman, high rates of child abuse, violence towards women in the military, in marriages/relationships, human sex trafficking of young girls (and boys), ultimate fighting, and endless wars. The list goes on.
We know that children learn best by example. Based on facts we know that mental illness does not cause violence. Discussion and analysis of violence without using people with a mental health diagnosis as the scapegoat would be a start.
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.