Guns, Media, and Mental Illness After Newtown
In the days after Newtown, a friend told me recently, she felt unsafe: “That week made me really terrified.” That was true for many Americans, of course, and by itself the sentiment might not mean much. But she had cause to feel personally threatened: as a person diagnosed with bipolar disorder, my friend was aware that the association of Newtown with mental illness could dramatically affect her life.
After all, following Newtown we seemed to frequently hear the phrase “time to do something about the mentally ill,” with that “something” being specified in at least one personal conversation as “lock them up and throw away the key.” Only when we are confronted by some act of extraordinary violence will the media, ever so briefly, open a sustained conversation on mental illness. For many people, it could be their only exposure to the issue.
Much of the coverage of Newtown focused on the possibility of mental illness, from pieces like The Atlantic’s “Diagnosing Adam Lanza”, to “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother”, to Wayne LaPierre’s apparently serious suggestion that the government create a national database of “lunatics.” In the end, the connection between mental illness and the crime was tenuous at best: the press settled on the “sensory integration disorder” that Lanza had been diagnosed with as a young child, and a diagnosis of Asperger’s at age 13. Lanza was clearly a troubled person, as a recent piece in the New Yorker makes clear. But not necessarily in a way that admitted of diagnosis.
Because we only talk about mental illness in relation to violence, it seems natural to connect them. But these connections lead us to bad judgments. In the cases of Keith Vidal and Kelly Thomas, two people diagnosed with schizophrenia, they lead to death at the hands of the police. In the case of Kelly Thomas—an unarmed man beaten to death in a parking lot—the police were found not guilty even of “excessive use of force.” Keith Vidal, a teenager, was recklessly shot to death in his own home. But then, he was a schizophrenic—and schizophrenics, as we are constantly told, are dangerous.
This association of mental illness and violence is also frequently employed on both sides of the gun control debate. Before Christmas, the New York Times published an article, “When the Right to Bear Arms Includes the Mentally Ill.” If you’re interested in 5,000 words explaining several times that people with “serious mental illness” are unpredictable and dangerous, and should be preemptively judged unworthy of their rights, you could probably do worse.
The piece is made up of unconvincing anecdotes and statistics that don’t stand up to scrutiny. That 40 percent of gun seizures in a single year in an Indiana county involved “some sort of mental illness” isn’t, by itself, an earth-shattering figure; it’s even less persuasive when you do the math and realize that means fewer than 15 people.
As far as facts go, the article relies heavily on Dr. Jeffrey W. Swanson’s work in this area, and on his recommendations on gun control as part of the Consortium for Risk-Based Firearm Policy. But that list of recommendations doesn’t support the article as much as it might seem at first glance. For instance, the Consortium recommends that people who are involuntarily committed to a hospital be prohibited from possessing a gun for five years—but it also recommends the same penalty for drunk drivers. That’s because mental illness by itself doesn’t predict violent behavior (whereas alcohol abuse by itself does). The consortium’s recommendations are focused on particular patterns of behavior that seem to be good predictors of violence, only one of which (involuntary commitment) is really specific to mental illness. But that shouldn’t be surprising, because they themselves stress that “most people with serious mental illness … are never violent toward others, and are in fact more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence.”
In one 1998 study, mentally ill people were found to have rates of violent or aggressive behavior that were “statistically indistinguishable” from the people who lived in their neighborhoods. Introducing substance abuse made violent behavior much more likely in both the mentally ill and among their neighbors. In other words, addicts are much more likely to be dangerous than non-addicts, but people suffering from a mental illness, no matter how serious, are not necessarily any more dangerous than anyone else.
The truth is, there is no perfect way to know who the dangerous people are in advance. There are stronger correlations than mental illness, though. For instance, most of these acts of violence have been carried out by men. There’s certainly a sense in which depriving the male population might do more to protect an at-risk population than any such restrictions on the mentally ill. If your response is that such a wide-ranging restriction would be a civil liberties violation—you’re right.
I am neither a gun nut nor a gun control advocate. I don’t own a gun. I think states can restrict the second amendment as they find necessary, while also keeping in mind that though many of us may feel uneasy about the second amendment—and with good reason—it’s still a basic civil right guaranteed to citizens by the Constitution. That opinion isn’t especially sophisticated, but I would like to be clear that guns are not really the issue here, at least not for me.
I take issue when a group of mostly harmless, at-risk people is consistently singled out as a source of violence; and I’m tired of seeing the violence they endure presented almost as a justification for assuming their dangerousness. Kelly Thomas must have been dangerous. After all, he was beaten to death by the police.
But when we ask the question, explicitly or implicitly, “what are we going to do about the mentally ill?” then what we are really saying is this: that the mentally ill are not full citizens, are not entitled to their rights as citizens, and that it is appropriate to deprive them of those rights as a group. They are problems to be solved and governed by the rest of us. They do not have the same status as self-governing citizens.
The conversation about mental illness that ought to be happening is not about guns, not really. Nor is it a conversation that needs to take place amongst some of us about what to do about others. Instead, it needs to be a conversation that includes, and is indeed led by, the voices of the mentally ill themselves, who know better than anyone the dangers they face, the support they need, the reforms that are necessary, and the ways the current health system fails them.
But this requires an unlinking of mental illness and guns.
Stories about violence are not the only stories that involve mental illness. In a recent article for Pacific Standard, “A Toast Story,” John Gravois traced a recent trend of high-end toast to a woman named Giulietta Carrelli’s coffee shop. It emerges that Carrelli’s toast and shop are some of the many ways she manages her schizoaffective disorder, a condition which for most of her life went undiagnosed and untreated. And though she is currently receiving treatment, Carrelli’s main anchor to stability even in dark times is her work and food and the community of friends that she has built over the years.
I doubt Carrelli owns a gun, but she would, of course, be classified as dangerous by the New York Times. Unmedicated for much of her life, she would fit neatly into the anecdotes that comprise “When the Right to Bear Arms Includes the Mentally Ill.” But Carrelli is not especially dangerous. Instead, she is somebody who has succeeded, despite real challenges, in finding a stable place to stand. What we should take from her story is how much can be accomplished when a struggling person receives even a little bit of help from another human being.
I have plenty of fears for the mentally ill. None of them involve guns. I fear for them when they struggle to navigate a labyrinthine medical system and fight for the care they need. I fear for them when they struggle to find a helpful psychologist or therapist that they can also afford. I fear for them because they are much more likely to be the victims of a violent crime. But I feel especially afraid for them every time the media latches onto a faulty narrative and makes their world a little less safe.