I am uncomfortable discussing ableism and related topics linked to mental illness for several reasons. One is that I don’t know enough about it to ask people to pay a lot of attention to what I have to say. Despite the whingings of my many detractors, I actually do tend to know a fair amount about the stuff I do talk about, such as race and racism, issues of gender related to both biology and politics, evolutionary biology, human foragers, and climate change. Indeed, I wrote my theses on these things. Well, some of them. But when it comes to mental illness outside of issues related to interesting things the brain does (I know something about brains) and certain cultural aspects (I’ve looked into so-called “culture bound mental illness”) I’m out of my league.

So why am I writing about it now? I’m not, as you’ll see. This post started, as so many things have lately, with a post over on the Future of Skeptics venue, Teen Skeptics. There, Olivia took issue with a certain thing a certain person said (we’ll get back to that) and from that starting point provided an important discussion about the equation of mental illness with criminality, or more exactly perhaps, the equation of mentally ill persons and criminals.

I think Olivia made a mistake (which she corrected) in her initial statement, which was that Barack Obama was inappropriately conflating these two things in a statement he made during the second presidential debate. I don’t think he was making that equation, but I do think everything Olivia said about it was important and interesting. I just don’t think it pertains to what Obama was thinking or what he really said; the comment he made was very much a quickly added phrase in the middle of another quickly added commentary about an issue that Obama has not been allowed, by the real politick of the situation, to discuss while in the White House (gun control). In a later comment, Olivia essentially confirms that she is not thinking that Obama is making this conflation, and points out something different. The following are my own words and not hers, but I think they resonate with what she is saying: It is necessary for us to adjust our use of language when speaking about issues of mental illness, much like we have been asked to adjust our language when speaking of, say, women, or even things that are not about women but where we might use gendered speech. While some might say that it would be totally mental to get all hysterical about some shrew bitching at you, others, more evolved, will recognize that the first clause of this sentence is loaded with ableist and sexist phraseology and should never have been written except as a parody of itself as I’ve done here.

I look forward to a more developed conversation (or to finding the extant conversation if it exists) that explores the whole criminal – mental illness – nurture your fellow human – hurt your fellow human problem. For now, I’ll just bring up a few points, without asserting any particular position on any of this, related specifically to firearms, because that is the original context of this discussion.

First, can it really be true that people with “mental illness” should not have firearms, period? It seems to me that it depends on the person and the illness, and the clinical or treatment related context. Having said that, I’ll take a guess at one aspect of this: The number one problem at the intersection of firearms ownership and mental illness probably exists in that area where people, especially younger people, are on the verge of or more likely to take their own lives. Guns are very effective when it comes to suicide. People who try to kill themselves and fail often get help and don’t do it again (sometimes that takes months or years, I’m not trying to make it sound simple here). People who try to kill themselves with firearms usually succeed, those who try it with other means usually fail. Therefore, willy nilly allowing access to guns by all potentially depressed or suicidal teen agers is socially sanctioned murder. Not a popular position with the National Rifle Association, but true. Right?

There must be a lot of things that are “mental illness” that have nothing to do with firearms.

Post hoc, we often see the mass murderers who go into a school or other public place and gun down lots of people as “mentally ill.” Are they? Is that a mental illness that can be identified and addressed previous to some horrid event happening? Is there a broader cause of such mental illnesses that can be addressed at the social level? Some will argue that the total number of people who die this way is so small relative to other ways to die that it is not important. I reject that argument as irrelevant. If we list all of our social, cultural, or political ills by a single metric and only address the mostest or bigest or worstest and ignore everything else, that would not be good.

Anyway, go read Olivia’s post.

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Comments

  1. #1 The Nerd
    October 22, 2012

    On some level, I don’t think people want to believe that “sane” people (that is, “people like myself”) could be capable of terrible acts of violence. It’s too close for comfort to allow that a familiar person could do such a thing, so the tendency is strong to “other” the criminal. As though acts of violence themselves weren’t othering enough, we reach for a scapegoat.

    The problem with this, as skeptics, is we’re not qualified to make such an assessment. Mental illness is a medical issue, and we are not that person’s medical provider. It is in poor skeptical form to make an armchair diagnosis, just as it is in poor humanist form to scapegoat.

  2. #2 ron
    October 22, 2012

    I’d defer to Jeff Snyder on this one: http://www.thefreemanonline.org/features/rights-without-exceptions-2/

    Shall we deny the Right to free speech to the “mentally ill”? Freedom of assembly? Indeed, why should they be given a fair trial, due process and be spared cruel and unusual punishment?

    Of course this is absurd, unless we’re speaking about the dreaded “firearms”!

    Olivia is right to point to these statements as unjust.

  3. #3 DuWayne
    October 22, 2012

    Whether or not people who commit these mass murders are mentally ill is a contentious issue to say the least. One of the biggest problems is that the act of committing a mass murder of that sort is such a profoundly abnormal behavior that some argue it is enough to consider the perpetrator of such an act mentally ill. The reality is that some of them are and some of them aren’t. That is to say, some of them have a mental illness that might have been identified as such beforehand and possibly managed.

    As far as preventing those who are mentally ill from committing such acts goes, we honestly don’t really do much on that front. The problem is that only a very tiny fraction of those of us who are mentally ill ever lash out violently against anyone except ourselves. People who commit acts of violence against others due to mental illness are rare and don’t tend to exhibit any particular characteristics that would differentiate them from anyone else with a similar mental illness. Of course a lot of them aren’t being treated and their mental illness is only identified after they commit a given act of violence, so there may well be an identifying characteristic that we just don’t have enough data to points to have noticed.

  4. #4 Corey
    Atlanta GA
    October 22, 2012

    Greg,

    Here’s another angle, not that I disagree overall with your well rounded analysis of the mentally ill and guns.

    It’s well known that people who “attempt” suicide and fail may have not intended to succeed at all. It’s also pretty logical that many people who commit suicide are intelligent enough to know which method is more likely to be successful (statistically that is) and choose according to their level of commitment, whether consciously or not.

    So the question I would raise (and which I feel was overlooked in your piece above) is: does restricting access to guns by the mentally ill actually have a significant deterrence effect on someone who is already highly motivated to die?

    I am dubious of the tendency to lump all “attempted suicides” together as being equally motivated and then inferring that removing the most-effective means will reduce the suicide by X%.

    Corey

  5. #5 Corey
    Atlanta GA
    October 22, 2012

    One thing I left out in the above post: it should have said “most-effective commonly used method” as opposed to “most-effective method.”

    No doubt there are methods that are more effective than guns that are just not as common.

  6. #6 Kate Donovan
    October 23, 2012

    FYI, as one of the Teen *Skepchicks*, you have a bit of a typo.

    We’re the Future of Skepticism: Teen Skepchicks.

  7. #7 Kate Donovan
    October 23, 2012

    FYI, as one of the Teen *Skepchicks*, you have a bit of a typo.

    We’re the Future of Skepticism: Teen Skepchicks.

  8. #8 Greg Laden
    October 23, 2012

    Future and, pretty much, present too, I’d say.