Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Lucia Are guns really the problem?

In aftermath of the Newtown shooting of children and teachers in the United States, not everyone is thinking about guns being the problem. What about policies around how those who are mentally ill are cared for?

The debate on gun control may be a good one if it reminds us once again exactly who these shooters are. Rather than focusing exclusively on guns themselves, the debate will be fruitful if we begin to pay closer attention to those who are committing these violent acts. A true commitment to social justice demands that we begin to take notice of the real health and safety needs of the mentally ill living among us. While progressives claim the moral high ground in their calls for gun control, they tend to ignore the fact that progressive policies on mental illness may have contributed to this dark day in Newtown.

For more than 40 years, we have been defining down the risks posed by the violent mentally ill. Dismissing the potential for violence within the population of the mentally ill was a noble goal in the beginning—an enlightened society needed to move away from the values and norms surrounding mental illness in the 18th century, when aristocratic elites visited the “mad” in London’s Bedlam Hospital and called it “entertainment.” But the social cost of defining down the risks posed by the violent mentally ill has been high—as the parents of the children of Newtown know.

To understand how mental illness went from a being considered a form of great deviance to an alternative lifestyle, it is helpful to look back at the efforts of the 1960s advocates who began lobbying for the rights of the mentally ill. Inspired by sociologist Erving Goffman’s book Asylums, progressives began to claim in the 1960s that coercive treatment for mental illness actually exacerbated the bizarre behavior of those labeled mentally ill. This outlook was reinforced by Michel Foucault, who asserted in Madness and Civilization that modern conceptions of mental illness were “socially constructed” when bourgeois society prevailed and demanded greater conformity.

From Foucault’s postmodern perspective, notions of madness and increased institutional warehousing were the result of the elite’s decreased tolerance for “difference.” Psychiatrist Thomas Szasz began writing about the “myth” of mental illness, and R.D. Laing drew upon existentialist philosophy to reject what he called the “absurdity of the normal.” By the time Ken Kesey’s book One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (later adapted into a film starring Jack Nicholson) was released in 1975, audiences were well prepared for the idea of the mental institution as the ultimate agent of social control, and for the parallel notion that insanity is really a sane response to an insane world.

It was in this climate that the Supreme Court declared in its 1975 O’Connor v. Donaldson decision that mentally ill individuals who pose no obvious danger to anyone cannot be confined against their will. And, for the past four decades, rather than focusing on the well-being of the mentally ill—and their neighbors, family, and friends—efforts have focused instead on reducing the stigma associated with their condition.

Yeah, that's been the case here in New Zealand as well. The same spirit of letting loose the mentally ill has been running rampant in the disability area as well, closing down workshops and facilities and "mainstreaming" those who really need to be in separate environments.  I did wonder where that idea came from.

The Newtown shooter has been described in the media as having suffered from a “personality disorder” as well as Asperger’s syndrome. He is described as having a “flat affect” and refusing to make eye contact with others. Although unconfirmed as yet, we can expect to learn much more about the young perpetrator’s history of mental instability. As one might expect, the Autism Self Advocacy Network quickly denounced suggestions made by the media regarding the perpetrator of the Newtown school shooting and autism, posting a statement on their website that reads in part:

Recent media reports have suggested that the perpetrator of this violence, Adam Lanza, may have been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, a diagnosis on the autism spectrum, or with another psychiatric disability. In either event, it is imperative that as we mourn the victims of this horrific tragedy that commentators and the media avoid drawing inappropriate and unfounded links between autism or other disabilities and violence.
These advocates are indeed correct in their claims that the overwhelming majority of people with diagnosed mental disorders—including personality disorders like the one Lanza has been described as having—are not dangerous. But there is a well-documented connection between severe mental illness, substance abuse, and violence.
It's more politically correct to blame the guns, however.  While it's true that the guns did kill 26 innocent victims on that terrible day in Connecticut, the guns didn't do it by themselves.  They needed a madman to pull the trigger.  I say mad, rather than just evil, because the killer killed himself as well.  It's the height of madness to take your own life, it goes against every instinct of self-preservation that we have as human beings.

So, how many of these mass murderers are insane?  Quite a few, as it turns out.

For a series on “rampage killers,” in 2000 the New York Times examined 100 multiple-homicide incidents that occurred in the United States over the previous 50 years. Reporters gathered extensive information on all the cases and looked even more closely at a subset of more than 25 of them. The analysis included reviews of court cases, news coverage, and mental health records, as well as interviews with families and friends, psychologists and victims. In some cases, reporters questioned the killers themselves.

Based on this information, the Times investigation revealed a high association between violence and mental illness. Nearly half (47) of the 100 rampage killers had a history of mental health problems before they killed, 20 had been hospitalized for psychiatric problems, and 42 had been seen by mental health professionals. Psychiatric drugs had been prescribed to 24 of the killers at some point before their rampages, but most were not taking their prescribed medication when they committed their crimes.

Even more revealing, the Times reporters found that the killers were so noticeably unstable that in their own social circles they had been awarded nicknames like “Crazy Pat” or “Crazy John.” [...]

Guns do allow a "Crazy Pat" to kill far more people in a short space of time than just pushing a random person in front of a train, or bashing them with a rock, or stabbing a baby in the face with a pen, but unfortunately we end up focusing too much on the gun and not enough on the person behind it.  We will never be able to take away every single gun to make every person safe.  Even without a gun, a person can do a lot of harm to another, but it doesn't make the news as these mass killings do, and so we all just get used to random killings that affect only a few rather than many.

Related link: The Real Social Justice Issue: Taking Care of the Violent Mentally Ill 


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One of the blogs on my sidebar, by Msgr Charles Pope, has his sister's story and his family's battle to get her institutionalised for her own safety.  They were unable to do so, as she was considered an adult who had control over her own life, and sadly she died in fire that she lit herself. It just goes to show how crazy the situation with the mad has become.

Related link : A Brother’s Reflection on the Struggle of the Mentally Ill, in the wake of a great tragedy.

3 comment(s):

ZenTiger said...

I think too, to this discussion we must include a full and thorough investigation into the role of "medication" in these events.

ZenTiger said...

from your post: " but most were not taking their prescribed medication when they committed their crimes. "

I had read something about the effects of ending medication, or changing it, could have significant impact. Also, the side effects are suspect - some drugs actually generate suicidal thoughts. Whilst mass murders may not show a common thread on drugs influencing behaviour, I think it's still worth investigating this aspect.

ZenTiger said...

I just found a link off Fox News, so it must be true:

While Newtown buried two more young victims Tuesday in the shooting massacre, authorities said they found no evidence the gunman who killed 27 people was being medicated for mental illness.

Read more: http://www.foxnews.com/us/2012/12/18/police-find-no-evidence-connecticut-gunman-was-on-medication

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