In chalking up a mass shooting to mental illness, Trump is ripping pages from another Republican’s playbook. For years, before Trump was ever elected, no one wanted to draw a link between mental illness and capacity for violence in black Sharpie more than Pennsylvania congressman Tim Murphy did.
Thought leaders lambasted Murphy last month for his anti-choice voting record after it was revealed that he urged his mistress to consider abortion during a pregnancy scare. He voted for the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which bans abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, the same week the country learned he would have preferred to eliminate his own unborn child.
But these pundits missed the most spectacular part of Rep. Murphy’s hypocrisy and it has nothing to do with abortion or reproductive rights.
Along with the fact that Murphy is not pro-life, more news spilled about the man who represents Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district and revealed that he’s unmoored. Murphy’s not unstable; he’s way more than that. His chief of staff, Susan Mosychuk, in a memo about her boss, wrote that he was “hostile, erratic . . . angry, aggressive and abusive” as well.
The same memo describes the congressman driving in a downpour while texting and watching Youtube videos on his ipad. And, in petulance that seems excessive even for a politician, he pushed papers to the floor and then ragingly required his staff to pick them up. All these antics emanated from the expert author of the book The Angry Child.
Those allegations of dangerous behavior and the licensed psychologist’s lack of insight into his own actions are enough to commit him, involuntarily, to psychiatric treatment under the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act. The bill was passed by the House last summer after being championed by Rep. Murphy for years as his signature legislation after the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting in December 2012.
The “Helping Families” bill — which effectively eliminated the old standard of being a “danger to others or self” in order to be involuntarily committed—was Murphy’s promise to the country that his profession could eliminate unfathomable massacres, despite scientific evidence that people diagnosed as mentally ill are more likely to be victims of violent crime than to perpetrate it.
But much like its original sponsor and author, the Helping Families in Mental Health Act appears more benign than it could ever be in reality. I would know—for three years, my parents periodically had me involuntarily hospitalized every time we argued. They would call 911 even though no one was in physical danger, and local police would cart me away in an ambulance.
When I would arrive at the Emergency Department, the attending psychiatrist had already spoken to my parents by telephone and apparently had no need to speak to me. He had already taken a clinical history from my parents, and from their accounts, he would hold me against my wishes. The anger I developed as a result of these traumatic events induced more psychiatric symptoms than anyone could have hoped for. I behaved almost as badly as Tim Murphy.
At the time, what happened to me was technically unlawful; the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act would have made it legal. Among other provisions, the law requires states to relax medical privacy laws, thus enabling family members and friends to provide medical histories and tales of allegedly squirrelly antics to psychiatrists, thus absolving the doctors of having to listen to the patient pursuant to Section VIII of the American Medical Association’s Code of Medical Ethics.
In essence, Mosychuk could describe Murphy’s behavior to a psychiatrist and a court and seek his commitment to outpatient treatment. If Murphy balked at having to sit with a shrink like I did, he could be involuntarily placed in an inpatient setting, based solely on his employee’s statements. Let that sink in: Tim Murphy — adulterer, distracted driver, toxic boss and mascot of federal wackiness — enabled anyone who’s pissed off at you to complain to a doctor and have you institutionalized. And, according to Murphy’s law, the doctor wouldn’t even need to talk to you to do it.
The Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act is so violative of patients’ rights that the ACLU and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights opposed it, along with 108 other mental health and civil rights organizations. The bill incentivized institutionalization over community-based mental health treatment, and planned cuts in funding for legal advocacy for people with psychiatric disabilities by 85%. The “Helping Families” law would never help patients; it would help their associates who wanted to get rid of them for a little while.
It’s not as if these violations of patients’ rights were outweighed by the benefits of involuntary treatment. Regardless of its setting, any proof that institutionalizing someone against their will is effective treatment is countered by evidence that it isn’t.
That Murphy’s personality issues were exposed in the wake of the deadly massacre in Las Vegas — where no investigator seemed to find anything wrong enough with its perpetrator to explain his behavior, other than the behavior itself — is ironic to the point of camp, especially since Murphy voted earlier this year to rescind a rule that prevented certain mentally ill people from buying guns. The fact that the Sutherland Springs, Texas shooter escaped from what appears to be a forced admission to an inpatient psychiatric setting years before opening fire in a Baptist church makes Murphy’s recommendation of involuntary treatment even more hollow.
In truth, though, Murphy’s mental health law was always unlikely to affect the congressman, no matter how bad his antics might have become. It’s usually women, minorities and the poor who are disproportionately overrepresented in involuntary treatment settings, not psychologists and lawmakers.
That’s why it was so easy for the House of Representatives to approve it so convincingly last year; the bill passed there by a vote of 422 to 2 but never made it to the Senate floor. Murphy resigned effective October 21, so it’s unclear whether the “Helping Families” bill will ever resurface. What is clear is that it can likely pass in both the House and Senate in his absence, especially with the president blaming unspeakable violence on mental illness.
But there’s a lesson in Murphy’s stunning insincerity for all members of Congress to heed, and it’s not just that they need to resign when they get exposed: when they vote for and pass bills that are contrary to the interests of the American people, those laws may eventually go against their own interests, too. It’s just a matter of time and transparency before that gets revealed to them — and the rest of us.
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.
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