ONTD Political

The wrong conversation about mental health and violence

6:15 pm - 02/04/2013
Whenever a mass shooting or other act of horrific violence occurs, the mainstream media, political pundits, and members of the public are quick to jump to one of two conclusions—the perpetrator was either autistic or had a psychiatric disability. Aside from the obvious prejudice against disabled people that underpins either assumption, both of these conclusions are not merely wrong, but incredibly irresponsible and unacceptably dangerous. The vast majority of autistic people and those with psychiatric disabilities are not only nonviolent, but much more likely than non-disabled people to be the victims of violent crime than the perpetrators of it. When autistic people or people with psychiatric disabilities do commit violent crimes, disability is rarely a factor in the commission of the crime. These insinuations place autistic people and those with psychiatric disabilities at extreme risk for further victimization.

For this reason, I am deeply disappointed in President Obama’s plan to reduce gun violence. Do I condemn violence? Of course. Yet, when public discourse is rampant with both overt and implied messages that there is some connection between mental disability and violence, that most violence is committed by the mentally disabled, or that mentally disabled people are more likely to be violent than the non-disabled, it is impossible for me to remain silent in the name of unity or cooperation. I am morally obligated to speak against ableism cloaked by the façade of good intentions.

We could imprison every mentally disabled person in the United States, and violence of all kinds would still continue at the same rates. We could vastly improve access to and availability of services and supports for those with psychiatric disabilities, and rates of violence would also not decrease. There is, therefore, absolutely no reason to include discussion of the (admittedly dismal) state of mental health services as part of a discussion on reducing gun violence, except to pacify public sentiment that conflates violence with mental deviance. Disclaimers that the majority of mentally disabled people are not violent do little to decrease or minimize the impact of emphasizing mental health services as a key component of a plan to address violence.

The fact that the Obama administration is centering the discussion about gun violence around the issue of mental health services suggests that it is pandering to the troubling assumption that only someone who is mentally disabled is capable of committing heinous crimes. This assumption is based on societal prejudices against disabled people, which will only be increased by this type of rhetoric.

Furthermore, while there are genuine concerns both by people with psychiatric disabilities and allies about access to appropriate and desired support services, one devastating consequence of this type of public discourse is increased stigma against mental disability and higher likelihood of mentally disabled people developing internalized ableism and thus not seeking supports or services that they might have otherwise wanted to find. Also underpinning much of this rhetoric is the unspoken assumption (taken for granted) that the appropriate response to mental disability is “treatment” in the medicalized sense, rather than removal of societal, legal, and attitudinal barriers to full inclusion and accessibility.

It is imperative for both policymakers and the public to recognize the dangers inherent in suggestions that only mentally disabled people are capable of committing violent crimes. It is necessary that we develop theories, policies, and practices that challenge the systemic ableism that simultaneously denounces and endangers the disabled. We ought to condemn violence, not behavior that is simply unusual or inconvenient. It should never be acceptable to juxtapose a conversation about reducing violence with a conversation about targeting an entire group of people—particularly a historically marginalized population.

There are many conversations about disability that need to be happening, including discussions both about improving current service provision by public and private entities and about reconstructing societal conceptions of disability and the disabled experience. But it is never appropriate to politicize those conversations while simultaneously perpetrating ableist notions about disabled people for the sake of political expediency.

If we are to actually discuss the connection between disability and violence, why don’t we address the systematic abuse, torture, and killings of disabled people across the U.S.?

Hate crimes against the disabled are rarely tracked and almost never included in discussions about crimes targeting people for actual or presumed membership in particular groups, but it is rampant and pervasive. Unscrupulous service providers and educators enact violence against disabled children placed in their care and under their supervision, often but not always in the name of treatment or therapy, and they are exculpated by the law. Parents and caregivers of disabled children and adults abuse and murder their charges, and they are exonerated in a court of public opinion that perceives them as heroic martyrs suffering because of a “difficult” child. Disabled people are raped, literally and figuratively, when officers of the law refuse to acknowledge violations of their bodies as prosecutable crimes.

If we must investigate the relationship between psychiatric disabilities and violence, we ought to investigate the attitudes that permit these unforgivable crimes. Why isn’t that conversation happening?

teacup_werewolf 5th-Feb-2013 02:17 am (UTC)
Parents and caregivers of disabled children and adults abuse and murder their charges, and they are exonerated in a court of public opinion that perceives them as heroic martyrs suffering because of a “difficult” child.

Thor help me, I remember the clusterfuck when Elizabeth Hodgins murdered her 22 year old son. The reaction from the autistic community was perplexed when the Autism Society mentioned the murder but then thus took George's name out of it. Like he didn't matter. There was stories of more murders of autistic people that year I remember sort of watching with the community dealing with the wave of anger that was washing in. I am so sick and fucking tired of hearing these stories of PWDD and PWMI being treated like pariahs and thrown aside. Even in casual discussions I hear frustrated parents of kids with DD or MI making off handed casual remarks about how sometimes they want to throw their kids in a pond or off a bridge or drown them and I am wondering how the fuck can they get away with those comments? Not only that but other parents go on about how "tough" it is and how it's ok to be "frustrated", while I sympathize I just don't feel comfortable with a parent talking about murder so casually or even as appropriate reaction to frustration.

I am honestly just so tired of this discussion over all, I sick and fucking tired when the topic of MI and DD and violence gets brought up I just want to go get a drink and pray to fucking Odin in Asgard that my mom doesn't decide that I need a mercy fucking killing.

God does anyone have some wine or mead, I like mead...
ericadawn16 5th-Feb-2013 02:21 am (UTC)
I also want the discussion about how military suicides are at an all-time high and so many of these high profile killings/incidents are by military veterans...like the guy in Alabama who kidnapped the five year old. We need to stop making them feel bad for needing help and we need to ACTUALLY help them.
soundczech 5th-Feb-2013 02:31 am (UTC)
I've read this through a couple times, but honestly, as someone who suffers from depression and mental illness, I find this piece really unhelpful and kind of disingenuous, as it seems to say that because most people with mental illness are non-violent, then we should just altogether discount the discussion of mental illness from any solution to the problem of violent crime. All violent crime is not committed by people with mental illness, but the percentage of those with mental illness / mental disorders is much higher amongst convicted criminals than it is amongst the general population. I don't think that is because people with mental illnesses are inherently evil, but because they often lack the support services to handle their problems. The source acknowledges this problem but then says that we shouldn't talk about it because of the potential for the development of internalised ableism, but I think that ableism can only be solved by increased discussion, not ignoring the issue.

edit: this is me being ignorant, but is autism really tied with violence in the public discourse? I've never noticed that before, I've always been more aware of suggestions that the perpetrator might be paranoid schizophrenic of bipolar...

Edited at 2013-02-05 02:34 am (UTC)
teacup_werewolf 5th-Feb-2013 02:39 am (UTC)
this is me being ignorant, but is autism really tied with violence in the public discourse? I've never noticed that before, I've always been more aware of suggestions that the perpetrator might be paranoid schizophrenic of bipolar...

All the time it seems like. I am part of an autism activism group and every time a mass shooting pops up we kinda brace ourselves for the articles theorizing that so and so had Aspergers or autism.
soundczech 5th-Feb-2013 03:21 am (UTC)
That's really bizarre to me, Aspergers/autism is such a non-killing-spree kind of disability...
teacup_werewolf 5th-Feb-2013 04:07 am (UTC)
Considering first hand experience with aggressive autistics, couple with the stereotype that autistics don't bond with people and have very limited emotions (mostly bullshit) it's pretty easy to scapegoat the guy who talks about goats all the time has no friends.
tabaqui 5th-Feb-2013 02:51 am (UTC)
RE: your edit - i wonder the same. I've never heard anyone speculating on if a person who committed a mass-shooting was autistic. It seems to me that people acquaint autistic people with someone like 'Rain Man' and, therefore, not particularly violent or capable of violence.

Which, i know, not exactly helpful.
soundczech 5th-Feb-2013 03:23 am (UTC)
Yeah, it seems like such a disconnect from the actual symptoms of aspergers/autism, though I guess most people aren't that educated about that.
mickeym 5th-Feb-2013 05:14 am (UTC)
My son is an Aspie. When he was younger (he's 18 now) -- and I'm talking from about four, up until probably 10 or 11 -- if he got over-stimulated or over-tired, upset, whatever, it could (and often did) trigger a meltdown. He would throw things, hit out, hit himself. I learned how to do a safety restraint for both our sakes, because by the time he was seven I couldn't just hold him to wait it out.

He's not particularly violent (no more so than the average male teenager, I don't think), but he IS capable of violence. I don't he's any more likely than someone not on the autism spectrum to snap and go on some violence spree -- but I don't discount it as a possibility, either. However, I think if he DID suddenly lose it, his violence would more likely be aimed at a single person -- whoever triggered him -- than to take a gun and start randomly shooting children, etc. (He was, in fact, horrified by the shooting at Sandy Hook, and I take things like that and talk to him at length about them, because it helps him process stuff, imo.)
soundczech 5th-Feb-2013 05:57 am (UTC)
I know autistic people who are capable of violent outbursts, especially aspergers friends who are prone to anger, but I was referring specifically referring to spree killing, which seems like it requires a completely different type of violent tendencies... I don't disagree that a person on the autism spectrum could become a spree killer, just that it doesn't particlarly seem like the spree would be caused by their illness in the same way that it could have been by, for example, a paranoid schizophrenic.
teacup_werewolf 5th-Feb-2013 01:48 pm (UTC)
Why do you assume a paranoid schizophrenic is more likely to murder and go on a killing spree? There are things called 'anti-psychotics' I was best friends with a few as a teen.
soundczech 5th-Feb-2013 04:02 pm (UTC)
I made a longer reply to this below, but I'm sorry if I wasn't clear in my original comment. I wasn't trying to say that paranoid schizophrenics are more likely to commit violent crime, I was trying to say that if they do commit violent crime it is more likely that their illness was a large factor in the attack in a way that it might not be for other mental illnesses.
sephirajo 5th-Feb-2013 01:55 pm (UTC)
Hi. I'm married to a paranoid schizophrenic. They don't randomly run around murdering people. Kthnxbye. Even untreated they don't. Imagine that!
soundczech 5th-Feb-2013 04:01 pm (UTC)
That isn't what I meant. I meant that in the event that a person with paranoid schizophrenia DOES commit a violent crime, then their illness is more like to have made a direct contribution to the crime than some other disorders. I was not suggesting that every paranoid schizophrenic commits murder, but if you look at murders committed by paranoid schizophrenics, they often involve a belief that their victim was going to harm or kill them in some way - eg off the top of my head I can think of a few cases in Australia, one where a woman who'd been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia stole a gun from a local gun club and murdered her father after becoming convinced that he was involved in a conspiracy against her, and one in which a man killed his two best friends after becoming convinced they were planning to rape and murder him. The attacks were the result of their paranoia, and therefore the illness was a contributing factor in the attack in a way that it might not be for people who suffer from other mental illnesses.

I also know paranoid schizophrenics and don't in any way think that all paranoid schizophrenics are dangerous or capable of murder, and I don't even think that those paranoid schizophrenics who DO commit murder are necessarily "bad" people, they just suffer from truly debilitating symptoms and need as much support from the community as possible.
thewhowhatwhats 5th-Feb-2013 03:13 am (UTC)
"All violent crime is not committed by people with mental illness, but the percentage of those with mental illness / mental disorders is much higher amongst convicted criminals than it is amongst the general population."

It's not much higher.

"One of the largest studies, the National Institute of Mental Health’s Epidemiologic Catchment Area study, which followed nearly 18,000 subjects, found that the lifetime prevalence of violence among people with serious mental illness — like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder — was 16 percent, compared with 7 percent among people without any mental disorder."


Access to mental health resources is an important discussion, but it would more helpful and less stigmatizing to do it during the health care discussion instead of the mass murder discussion.
soundczech 5th-Feb-2013 03:20 am (UTC)
That's not the statistIc I was quoting though. The percentage of the general population that has mental illness is only 25%, but the percentage of the population is between 40-60% in jails and prisons.


Edited at 2013-02-05 03:21 am (UTC)
thewhowhatwhats 5th-Feb-2013 03:51 am (UTC)
"The rate of mental illness among American prisoners, however, is even more disturbing: 60% of prisoners in local jails, 49% of those in State prisons, and 40% of inmates in Federal prisons display symptoms of a mental disorder or disorders"

It was studying symptoms, not disorders. It wasn't covering how many of these were violent crimes vs. other types of crime. Schizophrenics are most often jailed for misdemeanors that are generally related to homelessness.

I'm not surprised that "scary bipolar symptoms" came up in the sponsored search results.
mollywobbles867 5th-Feb-2013 04:48 am (UTC)
Also, unless all these tests were done before their incarceration, they could have developed the symptoms in prison.
soundczech 5th-Feb-2013 06:10 am (UTC)
If those symptoms are observed by a doctor, then I don't really see the difference between 'symptoms' and a disorder, given that disorders are usually just collections of symptoms. I'm not at all saying that people with mental illness are inherently violent/bad, but I also don't think that mental illness is one factor that can increase the likelihood of criminality, even if it's only because of external factors ie social marginalisation, difficulty in holding down a job, increased likelihood of substance abuse, etc. It's not at all that I disagree with the idea that people with mental disorders have been vilified in public discourse, I just disagree with the source's attitude which seems to be that we just don't talk about these kinds of issues at all.

I also frankly don't really disagree with the idea that we should reconsider whether people with a history of certain serious mental illnesses should be easily able to buy guns without undergoing any further scrutiny, though perhaps that is partially because I'm from Australia and I don't really support gun ownership to begin with.
ebay313 5th-Feb-2013 08:18 am (UTC)
I haven't looked closely enough at the study to know, but one could say symptoms of x, where those symptoms would not be enough to actually diagnose x. This can be especially true when you are looking at symptoms separate from diagnosed disorder across a population and thus not comparing if each individual has enough symptoms to actually be diagnosed with a certain disorder. Also important too if you look at certain things that would exclude a disorder which may not be taken into account with a study on symptoms (many disorders would not be diagnosable if the symptoms are better explained by or part of another disorder).

Another thing I haven't look closely at if the study accounts for, but which may be a factor is if prisoners are more likely to be screened than the general population.
soundczech 5th-Feb-2013 09:08 am (UTC)
I definitely think those things are factors, but (again as someone who has been dealing with mental health problems my whole life) I don't find it completely unbelievable that people with mental illnesses would be overrepresented in prisons, as many symptoms of serious mental illness lend themselves pretty well to breaking the law and so many people go undiagnosed that I'm guessing not many end up feeling much sympathy from the criminal justice system. My old roommate had serious bipolar disorder and she'd been in and out of court her whole adult life because whenever she had a manic episode she'd end up doing something totally out of control like picking a fight with a cop or trying to steal five towels from a department store just by stuffing them up her t-shirt. I think she once also assaulted a girl in a club, but she was always too ashamed to tell me the full story. Thankfully she was diagnosed at a pretty young age so she got a lot of lenience from the courts. I had another friend who had an episode in which he showed up at my brother's house at 4 in the morning and punched a hole in the wall because no-one would agree to go on a roadtrip with him or something. These people are totally reasonable the majority of the time and my roommate in particular was very, very careful about her medication, but they can't ever control the illness completely and in a manic state their judgment is severely compromised.

I don't think it's wrong to acknowledge these sorts of problems in order to find a way to solve them, but I understand that there are a lot of people in the world who will only let that discussion increase their prejudices, which is awful. thewhowhatwhats comment below helped me to understand the source's point a little better.

Edited at 2013-02-05 09:19 am (UTC)
thewhowhatwhats 5th-Feb-2013 08:21 am (UTC)
I'm not against background checks for people who have been deemed a danger to themselves or others. This would include some mentally disabled people, as well as people with anger problems, antisocial tendencies, and bigoted ideologies. Currently only "criminals and the mentally ill" are being considered for background checks. It used to be that pro-gun people defended guns by saying "guns don't kill people, people kill people", and now the rhetoric has changed to "guns don't kill people, mentally ill people kill people".

In America the right to have guns is the second most revered basic rights there Is. It bothers me how easily a constitutional right can be taken away from a group of people for the way they were born. There is something called the HIPAA, which protects patient privacy and confidentiality about the patient's health problems. What is being proposed by many is to go around HIPAA to compile a list of people with autism, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, PTSD, etc, which is not going to encourage ill people to seek treatment for fear of being diagnosed.

The idea of a government database is frightening. The US forced the sterilization of 60,000 mentally disabled people in its past, and the Nazis cited American eugenics as inspiration for how they handled their "undesirables". It may seem like a slippery slope, but there are many people who think the sterilization and euthanization of the disabled is reasonable and would be good for society, and continuing to paint disabled people as dangers to society who aren't deserving of rights could lead to serious oppression. The topic of mental illness needs to be discussed, but the only time that happens is when we need to figure out a way to protect ourselves from them, but never to improve the quality of their health.
soundczech 5th-Feb-2013 08:53 am (UTC)
Ahh, thanks for an explanation of the history, that definitely explains a little why mental health advocates might be hesitant to discuss the issue in this context. I think I was reading it with too strong a bias to my own situation - I've been living in Japan for the past year and a half, and in general I've found people are super hesitant to discuss mental illness here in comparison to Australia, and I've found that lack of discussion and openness has been really detrimental to my feelings about my own crappy mental health. So I might have misinterpreted the tone of this article. I felt like it was suggesting that we can solve problems by just not talking about them.
mollywobbles867 5th-Feb-2013 04:46 am (UTC)
The media kept speculating that the Newtown school murderer was autistic.
soundczech 5th-Feb-2013 06:14 am (UTC)
Ah. That is bullshit. I remember during Columbine it was all about teens with depression. The media is bullshit.
idemandjustice 5th-Feb-2013 03:30 pm (UTC)
It really seems like they were putting words in Obama's mouth that I never heard him say.

I also really can't get behind this right now. I have a friend who purchased a gun one month after having been hospitalized from a suicide attempt. I do not think he should have been able to do that, and no one is ever going to convince me otherwise. I also haven't heard from him in several days, and I'm both worried and pissed.
iolarah 5th-Feb-2013 03:55 am (UTC)
For an article that seems to position itself as defending people with mental illnesses, "mentally disabled" hardly seems like the kind of term an ally would use.
rex_dart 5th-Feb-2013 05:39 am (UTC)
No kidding. Is this supposed to be acceptable terminology now and I missed the memo? And what exactly is it that I'm supposed to be not able to do as a bipolar person?
iolarah 5th-Feb-2013 06:13 am (UTC)
I know what you mean. While I get the point that the author is trying to make, the misuse of that term just leaves a sour taste in my mouth.
thewhowhatwhats 5th-Feb-2013 06:20 am (UTC)
Disabilities often have a spectrum of severity. For some people bipolar disorder is a minor hindrance to their functioning in everyday life and for others it's totally debilitating. People with bipolar disorder may not be able to maintain personal relationships with friends, families, and significant others. They may have trouble keeping their grades up, regardless of intelligence or past academic performance, and many have to drop out during rough episodes. They also may not be able to go to work everyday, keep a job, or reach their potential in their field. There's also lack of the ability to enjoy things, engage in activities, keep concentration, understand their actions, have awareness of reality, and regulate their emotions.
rex_dart 5th-Feb-2013 06:29 am (UTC)
I've had jobs, relationships, and my academic career ruined by mood disorders. I'm aware of all this. But I am able to succeed at all those things, and I have. I'm mentally ill, and dressing it up in some inaccurate term that's meant to sound kinder doesn't change that. Illness is treatable; a disability is usually not.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with having a disability, mental or physical. What burns my toast is that I'm being inaccurately labeled in all likelihood because what I actually am - mentally ill - is something someone has decided isn't a nice enough term or makes me sound crazy.
ebay313 5th-Feb-2013 07:01 am (UTC)
"Illness is treatable; a disability is usually not."

I don't see how that could be true. Disabilities can be treatable- I have disabilities which I receive treatment for. Those disabilities are also illnesses, as many illnesses are disabilities. Even when looking specifically at mental illness, a mental illness most certainly can be a disability.
rex_dart 5th-Feb-2013 07:59 am (UTC)
A disability is not NEVER treatable, and I didn't say that it was. Not all illnesses are disabilities, and to throw them all into that category significantly changes the meaning of the word disability. The only reason I can think of that the author would take all mental illnesses and lump them into this "mentally disabled" category is because they don't want to use the term mental illness - which they don't even once in the whole article. It's a mis-characterization of mental illness as a whole and does a significant disservice to the mentally ill by further divorcing the concept of mental illness from physical. Would anybody talk about the concerns of sick people in hospice care and refer to them ALL as "physically disabled"?

You can be mentally ill AND mentally disabled. You can be mentally disabled without being mentally ill, and vice versa. I hate seeing the term "mental illness" avoided even at the cost of accuracy and specificity.
ebay313 5th-Feb-2013 08:09 am (UTC)
You did phrase that as if "illness" and "disability" are two completely separate categories. You did say "usually" not "always"- but even still I'm not sure that is, for one, even accurate, and even if it is, why is it meaningful to focus on the lack of treatment for some disabilities in this discussion?

"Would anybody talk about the concerns of sick people in hospice care and refer to them ALL as "physically disabled""

I would not find that odd if they were discussing how ableism relates to treatment of hospice care. And I don't think they would be wrong if they did- if a person is ill enough to need hospice care, I don't see how that illness would not also be a disability.
beetlebums 5th-Feb-2013 09:19 am (UTC)
I have 2 mental illnesses but when I think of people who do these mass shootings are ones with the personality disorders. Sociopaths, Psychopath, Anti-Social, even some Borderlines [I say this as one who has it and read up on some sad murders of families because of the lack of treatment and stigma].

I know when I talk about gun control and metal health for myself, those are the types of people I worry about. Not Autism, Depression, Bipolar, and most of the time Schizophrenia. I don't ever hear about those in serial killers so why should I expect the same with mass murders? I expect more of the above paragraph with those type of people.

Long rambling at 4am is never a good moment.
mahsox_mahsox 5th-Feb-2013 09:51 am (UTC)
This is just my observation based upon what I've seen of the world in 40 years...

the combination of

personality disorder
+ any mental illness, drug use or developmental disorder that disrupts cognitive ability
+ inadequate medical and social care

seems to be dire when it comes to explosive outbursts of violence.
beetlebums 5th-Feb-2013 10:46 am (UTC)
Add in with a lot of personality disorders, looking at you Narcissistic Personality, it can be hard to treat them. How do you fix the ones who need it the most when the psychiatric field cannot figure out how help them either?

As an aside and a question to you or anyone else reading, is uncontrollable rage counted under the mental illness umbrella? I know when you have a mental illness diagnosed already, it's a symptom. But what if you don't?
mahsox_mahsox 5th-Feb-2013 09:43 pm (UTC)
There is Intermittent Explosive Disorder.

But on the whole I think doctors are happy keeping rage a symptom rather than defining it as a disorder in its own right. It can also be a symptom of diseases that aren't generally seen as psychiatric.
angelofdeath275 5th-Feb-2013 02:28 pm (UTC)
Mte...but people don't really know the difference.

Edited at 2013-02-05 02:29 pm (UTC)
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