“Mentally ill monsters,” so named by the President, are a new target of the Trump Administration. As The New York Times reported recently, in August 2019 alone, the United States saw dozens of people die in mass shootings, including the three headline-generating tragedies in Texas and Ohio. Amid the usual calls for stricter gun control laws came renewed and intensifying appeals to remove guns, specifically from the hands of these “mentally ill monsters.” Attempts to blame the ongoing crisis of deadly violence on people with psychiatric histories is not new, but so-called “red flag” laws are a growing national threat.
The New York SAFE Act is part of New York State’s red-flag laws. The Act included the creation of a “mental health database” of people with psychiatric histories who are deemed a danger to themselves or others and who, by virtue of being in that database (based on the fraud of organized psychiatry), have legally lost their Second Amendment rights. Trump had suggested in a CNN interview that New York State was part of the problem of mass murders because it was involved in the deinstitutionalization process decades ago, having shut down state-sponsored psychiatric institutions. In a separate CNN interview, Governor Andrew Cuomo responded, “I don’t think the President knows what he’s talking about.”
However, Cuomo illustrated his own misunderstanding of the problem of mass violence, boasting (and disclosing) that, due to the SAFE Act, 139,000 people have lost their Second Amendment rights. In response, I submitted freedom of information (FOIL) requests to the New York State Office of Mental Health and the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, requesting:
“Demographics of the approximately 139,000 people who Governor Cuomo announced on CNN on August 15, 2019, who are in the New York Safe Act Database. *Please include the following demographics: county, age, race, gender, socioeconomic status, diagnosis, education, sexual orientation, sexual identity, employment, living situation, length of time in database, reason for entry to database, and any other information that is collected about people who are in the NY Safe Act database or who have been investigated for placement into the database.”
I anticipate a response toward the end of September 2019.
As the group Surviving Race: The Intersection of Disability, Injustice, and Human Rights reminds us, white supremacy and white nationalism culminating in white violence and terror must not be conflated with psychiatrized people. Curtailing the rights of people with psychiatric histories and suggesting there are “red flags”—warning signs of violence that will help stop the problem—is nothing more than a red herring, a ploy of the government and industries to maintain social control.
A Closer Look
At a press conference August 5 following the shootings in El Paso and Dayton, President Donald Trump called to involuntarily confine the “mentally ill monsters”:
“We must reform our mental health laws to better identify mentally disturbed individuals who may commit acts of violence and make sure those people not only get treatment, but when necessary involuntary confinement. Mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger, not the gun . . . It is not up to mentally ill monsters, it is up to us.”
On August 15, waiting to take off in a helicopter, Trump dug in further in response to reporter questions:
“I do want people to remember the words mental illness. These people are mentally ill. And nobody talks about that. . . . And people have to start thinking about it. I think we have to start building institutions again. Because, you know if you look at the 60s and 70s, so many of these institutions were closed. And the people were allowed to just go onto the streets and that was a terrible thing for our country. . . . A lot of our conversation has to do with the fact that we have to open up institutions. We can’t let these people be on the streets.”
In response to a question about background checks for gun owners, Trump responded that he’s been talking to people about it:
“We don’t want to see crazy people owning guns. . . . Because, you know it’s them. They pull the trigger. The gun doesn’t pull the trigger. They pull the trigger. So we have to look very seriously at mental illness and we’re doing that at a level that hasn’t been done before.”
“…to many Republicans. . . . Republicans agree with me on that, I think, you know I would say, pretty much uniformly. . . . [We need] strong meaningful background checks where people that should not have guns, people that are insane, people that are mentally ill, people that are bad, bad people . . .”
Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo appears to agree as well. As the Albany Democrat and Chronicle reported, New York State’s new red-flag gun law took effect August 25. Championed by Cuomo, this “extreme risk-protection order” will let law enforcement officials, family members or school officials “seek a court petition that would allow the seizure of firearms from people the courts find to be a threat to themselves or others.” The law follows on from New York’s 2013 SAFE Act, created after the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre, which among other things created the “mental health database” mentioned above and includes New Yorkers deemed too emotionally unstable to own or use firearms. According to the rules, mental health workers are required to report clients under their care whom they deem likely to commit violent acts.
Over the last six years this has meant that New York State has denied full constitutional, civil, and human rights to the approximately 139,000 people whose names are now in the database. The SAFE Act also significantly expanded who can be subjected to involuntary outpatient commitment, under what circumstances, and for what length of time, and instituted lenient re-evaluation extension rules.
It is true that Gov. Cuomo’s public response to Trump’s citing New York’s past closing of state psychiatric institutions as a terrible thing was to condemn such institutions:
“First, this whole concept of re-institutionalization is exactly opposite everything we’re trying to do. Right? There was horrific conditions, conditions in institutions. We now build community-based residences.”
However, he went on to boast to CNN’s Erin Burnett that the State was indeed clamping down on the “mentally ill”:
“But, put his knowledge on, on mental health aside. How does that stop a mentally ill person from getting a gun? That is the issue. And that, uh, if you want to do that, then you have to do a background check to make sure the person is not mentally ill. Uh, and that’s why you need uh, universal uh, background checks so you can see if a person is mentally ill. We have it in this state. Six years ago we passed the best gun laws in the nation after the Sandy Hook massacre, which was in Connecticut, the school shooting. Uh, and we set up a mental health data base. Erin, uh, 139,000 people could have bought a gun in New York but cannot now buy it because they are in a mental health database…”
One might think Cuomo’s appearing on the news cycle is evidence of the need to correct the public image of New York’s state-sponsored, organized psychiatric industry. It ought to be common knowledge that one of the major responsibilities of the Commissioner of the New York State Office of Mental Health is to keep these institutions out of the media and generally away from the public gaze. I believe that this obscuring of the industries from the public eye is a way of maintaining our society’s misplaced public trust in the institution of psychiatry and its outcomes.
In any case, it is clear that while someone was influencing Governor Cuomo’s comments promoting community-based residences, it was not the human rights movement of people who identify as psychiatric survivors.
Institutionalization and Institutional Corruption
We need to disarm the current “re-institutionalization” movement, a movement to re-open and build new psychiatric facilities and to identify and isolate certain segments of the population for the purpose of reducing their rights, by holding it accountable to the actual science of modern psychiatry and the history of institutions.
In a recent press release from Surviving Race: The Intersection of Disability, Injustice, and Human Rights and MindFreedom International, James B. (Jim) Gottstein, Esq., the President and CEO of the Law Project for Psychiatric Rights cautions:
“The suppressed scientific research is very clear that not only are ‘anti-depressants’ no better than placebo for the vast majority who take them, often with serious negative physical effects, they dramatically increase the risk of suicide and homicide for people of all ages. The book Medication Madness, by Dr. Peter Breggin may be the best compilation of this scientific proof.”
Dr. Breggin’s 2008 work detailed experiences of individuals involved with psychiatry and academic research, presenting the science of how and why these drugs are dangerous.
Dr. Paula J. Caplan, PhD, having had an insider’s view of the development of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) that holds all of the psychiatric diagnoses and their billing codes, has for decades been calling attention to the fundamental fraud of psychiatric diagnosis. It is the moral responsibility of all psychologists and psychiatrists to hold the media and themselves accountable to the truth of the professions they have developed. Caplan, the author of They Say You’re Crazy and “Diagnosisgate: A Major Media Blackout Mystery,” suggests, “People’s lives and well-being are at stake in this debate, nothing less . . . What is needed is to hear from someone who is an objective scientist, and knows what the research truly shows.” She also contends that the first harm people subjected to psychiatry experience is the diagnosis itself.
The history of psychiatric institutions is a long litany of oppression, foundational to the systems of slavery and eugenics. Psychiatric institutions are places that foster environments rooted in multiple human rights violations. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is consistently violated in psychiatric institutions, including documented cases of death, enslavement, torture, and sometimes all three. For most people, a decent life, let alone a life that is dignified or distinctive, is a lesser possibility when one’s life, liberty, and fortune are under the control of the State.
We ought to take it as a warning that the State refuses to acknowledge that there is not a shred of biological evidence existing for any psychiatric diagnosis. This lack of evidence creates a scenario in which anyone can easily fit the criteria for any number of hundreds of scientifically invalid disorders. We ought to take it as a warning that the State is not actively working to root out the known potential harms that psychiatric practices, products, procedures, and programming can and do lead to within its own state-sponsored service-delivery systems. We ought to take it as a warning that the State creates legislation, regulations, and policy that serve to maintain social control over local populations while bringing resources to the State. As Robert Whitaker put it in a 2017 blog, “One of the hallmarks of institutional corruption is that an institution will regularly act in ways that promote its own interests, even if that means betraying the principles that are supposed to govern that institution.”
Institutional corruption is solidified with misguided public trust. Misguided trust fuels how public resources are directed. The direction of public taxpayer resources authorizes what types of services are available, and to whom. In their book Psychiatry Under the Influence, Whitaker and Lisa Cosgrove discussed the importance of people’s access to accurate information. Sometimes, the lack of information about risk is just enough to create a willingness to forego true informed consent. Absent legitimate information about psychiatry, consent is an illusion.
If there is indeed a connection between public trust in psychiatry and the availability of state-sponsored services, we need to examine the relationship between information the public possesses about the risks of psychiatry and taxpayer support for court-ordered, coerced, or compelled compliance with psychiatry—including red-flag laws and mental-health databases.
How the voluntary or involuntary nature of state-sponsored programming and legislation varies based on what kinds of information people have about psychiatry remains an issue of concern for everyone working to protect and promote the human rights of those involved with state-sponsored mental health programs.
Another aspect that has corrupted the psychiatric industry is the persistence of racist and classist trends in involuntary psychiatry. It is crucial to call attention to these realities, particularly in light of our larger political environment where racism, classism, and discrimination of all types have been emboldened.
The Right and Obligation to Speak Out
Those of us who work toward abolishing human rights violations carried out via state-sponsored psychiatric industries are seldom if ever allowed by the State to utter aloud, much less write, phrases such as “institutional corruption,” “institutional and structural racism,” “psychiatric slavery,” “stop calling 911,” and particularly, “stop forced psychiatric treatment.”
But if advocates and allies are ever to meet the urgent need to get to the roots of constitutional, civil, and human rights violations, people at all levels of systems change and those subjected to the system must have the ability to speak freely and to question the State and guild authorities without fear of retribution. And to have those questions responded to with transparency and the same conditions of liberty.
The State, however, is not simply keeping the dark doings of the psychiatric industry out of the public eye. It is harming the public via its disinformation campaign about dangerous “mentally ill monsters.” The State is complicit in misleading people whose personal crises often stem from the environments in which they are operating and could be solved with more economic resources. It is spreading fraudulent ideas about the value of greater exposure to psychiatry, whose purpose is not to help these people but to maintain the funding the State generates via psychiatry.
A Path for Action
In response to the conflation of white supremacy, white nationalism, and white violence—of which red-flag policies are but one symptom—Surviving Race: The Intersection of Disability, Injustice, and Human Rights and MindFreedom International have called for a national campaign demanding that the media and government stop silencing challenges to the authority of psychiatry, and be held accountable for the ongoing disinformation campaign that will disproportionately affect people of color and other historically oppressed groups. It reads:
“First, the media and the government cannot silence people from speaking out against psychiatry.
Second, the media and the government must put out accurate information about the lack of science psychiatry rests on and the known potential injuries and death psychiatric practices, procedures, and products can and do cause.
Third, the media and the government cannot use acts of an individual or small group of people and extend those acts across an entire group of people that anyone can be sorted [into] based on subjective, non-biological assessments.
Fourth, the media and the government ought to expose the ways People of Color and people who are economically struggling are over-represented in state-sponsored court-ordered psychiatry and treatment over objection and under-represented in psychiatry that is voluntary in nature, with the degree of informed consent in participation unknown.
Fifth, in the current US climate, white supremacy, white nationalism, and white violence are creating a culture of terror. The government ought to take responsibility for its direct incitation of recent traumatic events. Those in the media are also accountable for the ways in which they present the dehumanization and targeting of groups of people experiencing oppression.
Problematically, the media legitimizes psychiatric diagnoses. The consistent pairing of psychiatric diagnoses and violence, particularly gun violence and mass murder motivated by white supremacy, must end.
We call to hold the media accountable for their messaging in the reporting of heinous and deliberate acts of hate. Surviving Race works to support the voices of people with disabilities and protect our communities from mentalism, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, antisemitism, and islamophobia. People who experience oppression are targets of psychiatry.”
Help us keep our watch over the news media and the government. In the current climate, white supremacy and white nationalism are culminating in white violence and terror, targeting and dehumanizing people experiencing oppression. We vehemently oppose society placing more trust in the field of psychiatry and the creation of national “red flag” databases of people assigned a psychiatric label. We reach out vigorously in support of those who may be experiencing trauma due to the ways the government and the media talk about people with psychiatric histories and due to the iatrogenic damages they experience as a result of their involvement with psychiatry, as well as to other groups of people experiencing oppression.
In building this movement, we would do well to pay attention to the 19th-century warnings against building institutions. The first volume of the American Journal of Insanity in 1844 (today’s American Journal of Psychiatry), cautioned the field not to replicate the asylum models of Europe:
“We hope never to see such institutions in this country. On the contrary, let no Asylum be established but for the curable, and to this the incurable and the rich and the poor should be admitted; let all have the same kind care; and all indulge the same hope, even if delusive to many, of ultimate recovery, but do not drive any to despair, and destroy the little mind they still possess, by consigning them to a house, over the entrance of which, Dante’s lines on the gates of hell might well be inscribed,
‘Lasciate ogni aperanza
Voi che intrate qui.’
‘Leave hope behind, all ye who enter here.’”
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.