Guns or Mental Illness, That is the Question.

This blogger happens to think that some commonsense gun laws that keep guns out of the hands of people who have certain types of serious neuropsychiatric disorders would be prudent.  The common good would also be better served if we would consider that guns don’t have minds, they don’t drive mass shootings, but they most certainly enable them.  Too many people insist on making the issue about a binary choice between mental illness and guns.  The general public, the media, and politicians are poorly equipped to enter into debates about one of those binary choices, i.e. neuropsychiatric disorders.  The populace cannot evaluate the significance of these disorders in these tragedies because they simply do not understand serious mental illness.

For example, the media is reporting that a most recent mass shooter had been depressed.  The nature of the “depression” that might have afflicted the young man is beyond the grasp of the vast majority of people.  Depression of the sort that most of us can understand, even when severe, does not cause the bizarre thoughts, fixations and behaviors of the shooter. What do people think clinical depression is?  Think of the typical sanitized pharmaceutical ads about “depression”, with their dulcet overtones…blurring the distinction between the kind of depression we all can relate to and the other kind – that few people understand.  Pharmaceutical companies… doing their part to spread ignorance about serious mental illness far and wide.

After the latest school shooting, everyone is talking about mental health issues.  On cable tv, on the radio, in print media, people are blaming mental illness or mental health issues as a manifestation of social ills… lack of respect for authority, parental negligence, taking God out of schools, the breakdown of family life, video games, and all sorts of other things.  Some will blame mental health issues and these social issues in the same breath.

Now is the time when criminologists, “forensic” psychiatrists (some, who might as well be criminologists) and socio-psychologists are invited by the media to help the public understand what causes these incidents of senseless violence.  Criminologists will spout their canned psychobabble analysis…shooters are seeking notoriety; they are calloused, disturbed people who just want to get attention. The socio-psychologists will point to trauma, abuse, “depression” and other environmental factors.  Some experts say that the shooter did not have the kind of mental illness that the system could have done anything about.  Perhaps that is because criminologists have labelled school shooters as psychopaths who simply lack empathy and who are calloused, but not mentally ill in the sense of those who are alleged to be more likely to be victims of crime that perpetrators.

This construct neglects to reconcile with the concept that serious mental illnesses are brain disorders that involve abnormal neuro/electrical/chemical conditions and sometimes structural anomalies of the brain that adversely affect the state of consciousness, thinking, and behavior.  Neuroscientists believe that the brains of people criminologists call psychopaths also have “bad wiring” and/or abnormal brain structures.

When a child under age is showing the kind of signs of brain dysfunction that have been reported about the Florida school shooter, the system should be able to case-manage that person.  The school shooter exhibited so many signs of serious brain dysfunction up to the point of posting a video where he wrote “Im going to be a professional school shooter” – under his own name, not an alias. Run-of-the mill criminals don’t signal their intentions like this. That act in particular is suggestive of something akin to anosognosia in serious mental illness.

The problem is that society has not figured out what to do proactively to manage young people that are showing signs of what criminologists call psychopathy and does an incompetent job of dealing with serious mental disorders.  Instead, society waits until their behavior has to be dealt with by the criminal justice system.  By that time, it’s too late.  A young person who expresses ideation of killing people should be forced to have a mental health evaluation, and moreover, be monitored .  The criminal justice system cannot intervene until there is an explicit threat or unlawful behavior has occurred. When a young person is showing so many alarming signs of serious brain health problems, they should not just be expelled from school without the state taking action to case manage that person.  When lives are at stake, the answer cannot be that we can’t do anything.  That is not acceptable.  We cannot let these matters rest upon the curtailment of high-capacity guns.  We need to design a commonsense mental health system just as much as we need to have commonsense gun laws.

We cannot continue to ignore the role that serious neuropsychiatric disorders have played in school shootings and community violence in general.  We also cannot continue to ignore the reality that our prisons are filled with people that require treatment for these brain disorders. We have to start thinking critically about the messaging that is being promulgated in the media. 

“The Connection Between Violence and Mental Illness is a Myth”

 “The mentally ill are more likely to be victims than perpetrators”

 “Study Shows, Violence Not Associated With Mental Illness”

 “Mental Illness Not a Risk Factor for Violence”

 “Research Shows Low Likelihood of Violence by Mentally Ill”

 “Violence Cannot Be Blamed On Mental Illness”

Yes, it is true that the vast majority of people with severe mental illness will never harm anyone. By now, everyone in America knows this, thanks to anti-stigma advocacy, public service psychology, and even the criminal justice system.  But the truth is that certain neuropsychiatric disorders can cause violence in a small subset of people.  These disorders can change the content of someone’s stream of conscience and rob people of the neural capacity to conform their behaviors to the law.  The fact that the criminal justice system punishes this incapacity unjustly cultivates ignorance about the grim realities of these disorders in a small subset of people with serious mental illnesses.  If the criminal justice system would stop punishing severely disordered brains, then society would no longer be able to throw these individuals in prison and forget about them.  Our awareness might be raised about the need to deal with the risks of certain brain health problems proactively.  State and Federal government needs to stop spending massive amounts of tax dollars on “mental health” and refocus on serious mental illness.

Somewhere in America…after sensible gun controls are implemented:

A mother with postpartum psychosis throws her baby off a bridge.  Her husband, uneducated about the signs and symptoms of psychosis thought she was simply struggling with “depression” from the stress and strain of new motherhood.

A young man with Schizophrenia responds to command hallucinations and starts a fire in the family home, killing family members.  The young man had recently been insurance case-managed out of psychiatric inpatient treatment.

A young woman from a close-knit loving family in her first year of college, undiagnosed with Bipolar jumps out of a window of an apartment tower, killing herself and a motorist.  Her behavior in class alarmed fellow students and professors, leading the school to compel the young woman to see a counselor.  The school officials did not understand that anosognosia can block a person with serious mental illness from knowing that they need help.  She did not comply.

A young mother who was “depressed”, beheads her newborn child – with a knife.  Her family observed that she seemed withdrawn and robotic “like an empty shell with dead eyes”.  She is charged for murder and sits untreated in jail for months awaiting transfer to be prepared for prosecution .  She denies being mentally ill.

A husband in relapse, anosognosic, and refusing medication, stabs his children and wife, killing them.  His wife had tried to have her husband involuntarily committed based on his psychotic symptoms but he had not shown signs of being dangerous to himself or others.

A man in the throes of florid psychosis pushes a child and a mother off a train platform.  They are killed.  He had just been released from prison where he had been receiving antipsychotic medication.  He was released with no coordination for continuing care and case management.

A young woman, her husband’s frantic attempts to get her admitted for involuntary treatment are rebuffed by county mental health authorities multiple times, she has not threatened to harm anyone and has not done anything “in furtherance of a threat”.  Within days she runs down a group of children walking home from school.

A kind college-bound young man who came of age, legally purchases firearms after passing a rigorous background check.  Just a few years later he begins to show signs of emerging psychosis, but none of his friends, family, or associates recognize hallmark signs and symptoms.  Untreated, the psychosis exacerbates into bizarre thoughts involving shooting people at a wedding party.  Months later, he becomes yet another shooter.  A newlywed bride and her mother are dead.

There is an epidemic in this country of these kinds of tragedies, but they rarely get the attention of mass shootings.

Social media, radio talk shows, media commentators, politicians all have something to say about “mental health” or mental illness when mass shootings happen but few of them knows what they are talking about.  How can the populace be blamed for their ignorance?  They are the product of miseducation.



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