As could be expected, in the wake of the mass killings in El Paso and Dayton, we have politicians and others blaming the killings on the “mentally ill.” We have heard this over and over again, and I think it is time to call it what it is: Hate Speech.
Here is how the Oxford dictionary describes hate speech:
“Abusive or threatening speech or writing that expresses prejudice against a particular group, especially on the basis of race, religion, or sexual orientation.”
Blaming the “mentally ill” for mass killings fits that description. It is speech that asserts that there is a group of people in our society who are dangerous and are largely responsible for mass murders in our society, and it is speech that implies that we need to identify the “mentally ill” and in one way or another restrict their citizenship rights. At its most extreme, this restriction may involve their being placed under a court order requiring them to take antipsychotic medications.
The latter course is what E. Fuller Torrey urged in an editorial published Sunday in the Wall Street Journal.
And thus, hate speech. The blaming of the “mentally ill” is threatening to a particular group, and it expresses prejudice against that group. And as can easily be seen, this blaming ultimately prevents us from acknowledging the obvious truth: the regular presence of mass murders in our society needs to be seen as a societal failure. Blaming it on the “mentally ill”—whoever that mythical group may be—simply helps perpetuate that failure.
Scapegoating is a Form of Hate Speech
On Monday, President Trump, commented—admittedly in his inimitable word-salad style–on the mass murders in El Paso and Dayton. “Mental illness and hatred pulled the trigger,” he announced. “Not the gun.”
Trump, of course, was repeating a Republican talking point. Yet, the mental illness part echoes a bipartisan belief.
We all know the political context for Trump’s statement. While there may be many factors that have led our society to this very dark place, the first factor is this: we as a society have made it possible for people to arm themselves with weapons to commit mass murder.
The Republican party, of course, has made opposition to gun control a central part of its strategy for attracting a voting bloc, and we have a lobbying organization, the NRA, that provides funding to the leaders of that party. Thus, when a mass murder occurs, the Republican party has a need, given its opposition to gun control measures, to place the blame elsewhere, and so it trots out the “mentally ill” diversion.
In other words, the Republicans are singling out the “mentally ill” for scapegoat purposes. That meets the criteria for hate speech: it is threatening to a specific group (those seen as mentally ill), and it labels them as “dangerous” to society, and that sets up the possible passage of laws that would restrict their citizenship rights. And that is all being done for political purposes, to deflect blame from their own politics.
While the Democrats may be in favor of gun control measures, under President Obama the “disabled” mentally ill were singled out as a dangerous group. His reason for issuing the regulation may have been different from the Republicans’ use of the “mentally ill” for scapegoat purposes, yet, upon close examination, the regulation itself fits into the “hate speech” category.
After the 2012 killing of children at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Obama issued a “red flag” regulation designed to prevent the “disabled” mentally ill—those who received government disability checks because of a psychiatric disorder—from buying guns. The regulation required the Social Security agency to submit the names of such adults to the federal background check database. However, the regulation didn’t go into effect until shortly before Trump was inaugurated, and then Trump quickly cancelled it.
Obama had suggested that this would add 75,000 names to the background check database, and thus prevent this group on government disability from buying guns. However, that 75,000 number is way too low. There are now more than 4.5 million adults on disability due to a mental disorder, and millions more on government disability who, while disabled for another reason, have a psychiatric diagnosis. So it would seem that Obama’s regulation, if it had ever been implemented, would have added millions of names to the background check database.
I haven’t studied the roster of mass murderers, but I don’t know of any study that has found that those on government disability due to a psychiatric disorder are more likely to use a gun to commit a mass murder than the general population, or say, more likely than white males ages 18 to 45.
Indeed, for comparison sake, imagine the following scenario. The killer in the Sandy Hook murder was Adam Lanza, a 20-year-old white male. If Obama had then issued a regulation “red-flagging” white males ages 18 to 45 making it more difficult for them to buy guns, I am sure he would have been bitterly attacked for his “prejudice” against white men and for promoting “hate speech” toward whites. This would be so even though—given the roster of mass murderers we do have—red-flagging white men ages 18 to 45 would have been more “evidence-based” than singling out those on government disability due to a psychiatric disorder.
With this example in mind, it’s evident there was an element of “hate speech” in Obama’s regulation. It was in fact “threatening” to a specific group (the “disabled” mentally ill), and it subjected that group to societal “prejudice.” Replace “disabled mentally ill” with “white males” in the red-flag equation, and the hate-speech element, unwitting as it may have been, becomes apparent.
Who Are the Mentally Ill?
As the Washington Post wrote in one of its articles on Trump’s comments, his blaming of mental illness could be expected to provide support for “red-flag” laws that would make it more difficult for the mentally ill to obtain guns. Obama’s regulation targeted those on disability; the “blame” mental illness mantra implies that society should cast a much wider net.
One in five American adults is said to suffer from a mental illness in any one year. This figure arises from populations surveys that use the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual to set the boundary lines for determining who is “mentally ill.”
That means there are 46 million adults that are said to be “mentally ill” in the United States. Once again, I don’t know of any study that found that this large group of people in our society are more violent, or are more likely to commit mass murder, than the general population. But when we have politicians and others blaming mental illness as the root cause of mass murder, it is speech that singles out this larger population as “more dangerous” than the rest of the U.S. population.
Now what could our society possibly do in response to this belief? Should we, based on these numbers, pass laws that will screen the entire population for mental illness, and then prevent the 46 million adults who are deemed to be mentally ill from buying guns, while allowing the rest of the population to do so?
I rather doubt that we would do that. That wide net would capture too many people who owned guns, which would make it politically unacceptable. In that sense, the blaming “mental illness” talk is just empty talk, diversionary in nature, and not meant to be the basis for any legislative change.
However, we already have a legislative agenda in place that focuses on a smaller subgroup of the “mentally ill”—those who have been in a mental hospital. Which brings us to E. Fuller Torrey, the Pied Piper of Hate Speech toward those who have that experience on their resumes.
Blaming Mass Murder on The “Unmedicated” Mentally Ill
For twenty years, E. Fuller Torrey has been using the spectre of violence by the “untreated” mentally ill to advocate for state laws that authorize their forced treatment in the community. For instance, in a 2013 interview with 60 Minutes, Torrey said that without such legislation, the country would need to accept regular occurrences of mass murder, such as what happened in Tucson, Arizona, and at Virginia Tech.
His Sunday Wall Street Journal op-ed, titled Mental Illness and Mass Murder, was more of the same. He stated that there were one million people in the United States who in the past would have been institutionalized in state hospitals but who were now living in the community, and that perhaps half of this population wasn’t being treated for their illness. He then suggested that this is the group responsible for the majority of mass murders. He wrote:
“What is clear from all the databases is that these mass killings are increasing in frequency and have been since the 1980s. Not coincidentally, that was when the emptying out of state mental hospitals was at its peak.”
Having put blame for the majority of mass murders on the “untreated” mentally ill, Torrey then argued that forced outpatient treatment could help eliminate the threat that these 500,000 or so people posed to our society. Once the mentally ill are treated, he said, they are no more likely to commit violence than the general population.
“We know what to do to reduce the number of mass killings associated with mental illness,” he concluded. “The question is whether we have the will to do it.”
Hate speech, of course, tells lies about the targeted group, and uses that information to stir up prejudice toward the group. Torrey’s blaming of the untreated mentally ill for the majority of mass murders does just that. Here are just a few of the facts that belie his argument:
- A number of our mass murderers were taking psychiatric drugs when they committed their murderous acts. Antidepressants in particular are a subject of possible culpability; studies have found that they can stir homicidal impulses.
- Torrey provided no evidence that the majority of mass murders over the past 25 years were committed by people who had been discharged from mental hospitals, and yet his forced treatment laws target that group. Personally, I would like to see a study that assessed what percentage of our roster of mass mass murderers over the past 25 years spent time in a mental hospital; I am willing to bet that the percentage is very low.
- In the era prior to the introduction of antipsychotic drugs, patients discharged from mental hospitals committed crimes at either the same rate or a lower rate than a matched cohort (level of education and income) in the general population. The risk of violence by the “seriously mentally ill,” while greatly exaggerated in the public mind today, rose to above the general population rate during our modern era of widespread use of psychotropic drugs.
- The number of people treated for psychiatric disorders has dramatically increased since the 1980s, with 20% of the adult population now taking a psychiatric drug on a daily basis. If we apply Torrey’s reasoning, we can conclude that “the frequency of mass murders” has increased with the expansion of the psychiatric enterprise in this country.
So what is Torrey doing in his editorial? He is stirring societal hate towards nearly half a million people—that number is his estimate—who have been in mental hospitals and have stopped taking psychiatric drugs. He is placing a big scarlet DANGER label on this group, and blaming them for the rise in mass murders and urging that their liberty be taken away, as though that would be a remedy for this violence that regularly erupts in our society. He is using a scaremongering argument to advance his own political agenda.
Mad in America recently published a lengthy piece titled “The Case Against AOT,” detailing how forced outpatient treatment doesn’t achieve the ends that Torrey says it does. His WSJ editorial, in fact, serves Republican talking points, and once again, distracts our attention away from placing the blame for the mass murders where it belongs, on us as a society.
We have created a societal landscape that makes it possible for people to arm themselves with assault weapons and to buy ammunition that can be used to kill multiple people in a short period of time. That is what enables mass murder in our society.
And so, please: no more blaming the “mentally ill” for this horrible violence in our society. It’s a type of hate speech, for all the reasons listed above, and all it does is stir up a profound societal prejudice toward people diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder, and prevent us from doing anything that might actually reduce the frequency of such awful, shameful events.
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.