After each highly publicized gun violence incident, some lawmakers—whether with good intention, for political gain, or both—declare that we must have laws to keep guns out of the hands of people with mental illness. It is therefore stunning and profoundly important to note Sunday’s blog post from the American Psychiatric Association’s president, Dr. Renee Binder.
As chief executive of the major lobby group that advocates for the interests of psychiatrists, Binder might have been expected to recommend an increase in psychiatric treatment for the mentally ill as a way to reduce gun violence. Amazingly, she not only did not make that recommendation, but she made the powerful—and well-documented—statement that people diagnosed with mental illness are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of it and that most of the mentally ill will never commit acts of violence against others. Thus, to pass laws to prevent the mentally ill from owning guns is no way to reduce the frequency of murders. In fact, as Binder pointed out, “Stronger indicators of risk include a history of violent behavior, domestic violence, and drug or alcohol abuse.”
Politicians on the Sunday morning news shows either failed to read Binder’s essay or chose to ignore it and plowed right ahead, pushing for gun laws about the mentally ill. And on Monday morning, former Congressman Patrick Kennedy appeared on CBS, making an impassioned plea to prevent the mentally ill from owning guns and making the bold—and unfounded—assertion that that such a step would have prevented the most recent mass shooting. It will be worth watching to see if over time, Binder’s strong statement alters politicians’ proposals. Today, Republican Presidential candidate Ben Carson made a similar plea.
Two important points shed further light on this matter. One arises from the fact that the primary way that “the mentally ill” are identified is by having been given psychiatric diagnoses, but a vast body of work over three decades has revealed psychiatric diagnostic categories to be constructed and applied with little or no scientific support, so attempts to divide the populace into “the mentally ill” and “everyone else”—and aim to pass laws affecting the former—make no sense.
The other relevant point is that the ballooning numbers of categories and subcategories that are called mental illnesses has led to the psychiatrizing of our society, the tendency of therapists, media people, the public, even some novelists to try to explain every aspect of human behavior as caused by a mental illness. This often takes the form of, “Person X did Y, and the fact that they did Y proves that they are mentally ill, because Y (almost any action or expression) is a mental illness.” Defense attorneys operating in a system that is often stacked against the accused, especially if the latter are poor or women or people of color, understandably try to get their clients diagnosed as mentally ill, hoping to argue that the psychiatric disorder is reason for a reduced sentence. As a result, a confounding factor we will increasingly need to consider is that an artificially created correlation between a diagnosis of mental illness and commission of a violent act will result, as anyone charged with an act of violence is increasingly likely to be labeled mentally ill. As that happens, it will unjustifiably become ammunition for those who want to base laws on the notion that “the mentally ill” are more dangerous than the rest of the populace.