Stop Blaming Newtown Tragedy On Mental Illness

by: Peter Jukes

Wed Dec 19, 2012 at 05:50:47 AM EST

This is the first time I've copied over an entire article of mine, and I'm probably infringing my own copyright, but I think this is an important discussion and I can only join in here.

In the wake of the terrible events of last Friday in Newtown, which left 27 dead-20 of them young schoolchildren-social media such as Twitter and Facebook played a key role in communicating the shocking news and expressing an international sense of outrage and grief. But they also spread misinformation and misapprehensions just as quickly. The gunman was initially misidentified, and his murdered mother was erroneously connected to Sandy Hook Elementray School. But while these errors of fact were soon corrected, a deeper misunderstanding took hold over the following few days as a shattered nation tried to understand an inexplicable tragedy.

Writing is seen on a home in Newtown, Connecticut on Dec. 17, 2012. The two funerals on Monday ushered in what will be a week of memorial services and burials for the 20 children and six adults massacred when gunman opened fire at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown last Friday. (Eric Thayer/Reuters, via Landov)

An uncorroborated rumor about the gunman, Adam Lanza, suggested that he suffered from Asperger's syndrome-a now out-of-use term for a higher-functioning form of autism. By Saturday, a blog post by Lisa Long-"I Am Adam Lanza's Mother: A Mom's Perspective On The Mental Illness Conversation In America"-had gone viral, been retweeted hundreds of thousands of times, and republished on Gawker, Britain's Daily Mail, and on the Huffington Post. Long, the mother of a 13-year-old with behavioral problems, argued, "It's easy to talk about guns. But it's time to talk about mental illness."

Peter Jukes :: Stop Blaming Newtown Tragedy On Mental Illness

There are various problems with Long's impassioned piece when it comes to "talking" about mental illness, partly due to the fact it contained a slew of questionable diagnoses-Autism spectrum, ADHD, Oppositional Defiant, or Intermittent Explosive Disorder-which aren't officially recognized as mental illnesses at all. Police Inspector Michael Brown, who runs the highly respected Mental HealthCop blog, called it "potentially the worst article I have ever read about mental health and violence following an atrocity." Other critics took issue with the way Long had publically demonized her son as a potential mass murderer.  While some complained that Long herself was being demonized as a bad mother, the author from Boise, Idaho, issued a joint statement with one of her erstwhile critics about the need for accessible and affordable mental health care in the U.S.

The Huffington Post published a corrective article, "No Link Between Asperger's Syndrome And Violence, Experts Say." But to date, the corrective article has only received 2,500 Facebook "likes" compared to the more than a million received by Long's original piece. The misinformation had circled the virtual world before the truth had even begun to get its cyber-boots on.

By Sunday, the line had grown into a swelling chorus. Erik Erickson, the founder and editor of the popular Republican website Redstate, was averring: "Discussions of gun control are easier to have than discussions about mental health." The owner of one of the many gun ranges in the rural rolling hills around Newtown, Conn., was telling The New York Times: "A gun didn't kill all those children, a disturbed man killed all those children." David Rivkin, a constitutional lawyer who served in both the Reagan and Bush Sr. administrations, appeared on the BBC World Service to tell millions of listeners overseas: "It's not about gun ownership, it is about mental illness." "If there's one unifying feature of all these atrocities," Rivkin stated in an interview for the popular Newshour program on Monday night, "it's that they were all committed by mentally unbalanced people who need to be confined for the protection of those around them and other people."

Despite the promise of a conversation about mental health, misinformation and ignorance became the norm in the aftermath of the Newtown tragedy.

The only problem with this argument is that it has no basis in fact. If mental illness were the key factor in multiple gun homicides like Newtown, then other countries would regularly experience the kind of carnage visited on towns and cities in the U.S. on almost on a monthly basis. But they don't. In Britain, an advanced study by Manchester University into "Suicide and Homicide by People with Mental Illness" has found most people who kill more than one person are neither mentally ill, nor mental health patients, As Dr. David H. Barlow, a senior expert in comparative mental health-care systems and Emeritus Professor at Boston University, told The Daily Beast, "the incidence of mental illness is quite consistent across Europe and America." Yet the statistics for the homicide and suicide rates are much higher in the U.S. than most of the rest of Europe, with Americans 100 times more likely to die to a gun-related death than in the U.K.

Despite the promise of a conversation about mental health, misinformation and ignorance became the norm in the aftermath of the Newtown tragedy.  British CNN host Piers Morgan suggested that anyone with a history of mental illness should be banned from owning a gun in the U.S., but that would include almost 50 per cent of Americans who are expected to suffer from some condition in their lifetime.  The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about 25 percent of U.S. adults currently suffer from some kind of mental ilnness-though this would include phobias and obsessive disorders. In 2011, government data calculated that around 5 percent of the U.S. population suffered from severe mental illness, while Professor Barlow estimates that somewhere around 1 percent  of the U.S. population will be suffering from psychosis-including delusions and hallucinations-at any one time. "But even they show an only slightly elevated risk of violence," Barlow told The Daily Beast, "with a small increased risk of around 5 or 10 percent above normal." Meanwhile, those who suffer from psychosis are much more likely to be the victims of homicide or kill themselves.

For Dr. Nadine Kaslow, professor and chief psychologist at Emory University School of Medicine-who was recently elected to the presidency of the American Psychological Association-the recent spate of generalized and pejorative statements made about mental illness are "extremely unfortunate" as they "stigmatize a whole group."

"When I talk to my patients after an incident like Newtown," Kaslow told The Daily Beast, "my patients differentiate themselves from these killers, because they say these people lack empathy." Though Kaslow acknowledges that those with learning disabilities or mood disorders can be aggressive and display challenging behaviors, this doesn't translate into calculated acts of violence. "We really do not see any correlation between Asperger's syndrome and gun violence," Kaslow reiterated.

Those millions of Americans who suffer from mental illnesses and learning disabilities have therefore become collateral damage in the soul-searching since the Newtown massacre. What conditions Lanza suffered from, or didn't, will take a long investigation, but like other multiple-gun homicides, his atrocity required almost military-style planning and execution, which is unlikely given against the cognitive and emotional deficits of acute psychiatric illness. It was this element of forethought and calculation which led to Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian right-wing extremist who killed eight with a bomb in Oslo then shot dead 69, mainly teenagers, holidaying on Ut√łyaIsland in 2011, being considered sane enough to face trial and a prison term in Norway. Though Breivik's Islamophobic ideology could be described as crazy, the means Breivik chose to pursue his apocalyptic race war were rational and deliberative given those precepts, and he showed no sign of clinical psychosis.

In this light, Long's imprecation to "start talking about mental illness rather than guns" looks like a distraction from the more probable factor to explain America's elevated homicide and suicide rates: the U.S. is a complete outlier compared to other industrialized nations in its startling, almost 90 out of 100, number of guns per capita. Apart from the extreme youth and number of his victims, the other hallmark of Lanza's massacre was the use of a semi-automatic Bushmaster AR-15 assault rifle (which has horrifically doubled in price since the Newtown attack). Assault weapons were banned until 2004, when the Federal Assault Weapons Ban was not renewed-largely thanks to the lobbying power of the National Rifle Association.

In what must count as one of the most successful campaigns in U.S. history, the NRA has managed to reduce support for gun control in the U.S. by 50 per cent in the last 20 years. One of its key lines of argument throughout that time has been that, "It's not guns that kill people, but people who kill people." On Friday the NRA's Facebook page was taken down, and its Twitter feed went silent, and the organization seemed to have no response to the mounting calls for gun control in the wake of the most recent tragedy.

According to Mark Borkowski, a British PR titan with extensive knowledge of crisis-management campaigns, "anybody in this territory is equipped to deal with extreme events like this, and defend against or capitalize on them depending on what happens." "The key thing is to sow doubt," Borkowski told The Daily Beast. "Doubt is a product, and you have sleepers and advocates who are well briefed to construct a counter-narrative in times of crisis."

There is no evidence that the NRA or any of its lobbying arms has been involved in any kind of crisis management in the last few days. However, opponents of gun control are now using a variant of the old NRA adage, "It's not guns who kill people, but mentally disturbed people who killed people." In doing so they are perpetuating what is effectively a slur against millions of Americans who suffer from mental illness, and stigmatizing a group who already suffer enough.

Originally published in the Daily Beast

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It is in part a misunderstanding of definitions. (2.00 / 8)
For my own part when I wrote my first few thoughts here I wondered at the actual and accepted definitions of "mental illness". I am not sure I have really had that answered yet.

To be clear, my own usage is "an illness of the mind, not an illness of the body". An illness of thought, rather than biology.

Autism spectrum disorders including Asbergers (which is what my friends with Asbergers call it, so I will follow their lead on whether it is a real term or not) do not fall into that category. These are medical conditions that happen to effect the organ people think with.

I believe people can - and do - make themselves "sick in the head" by thinking the wrong things. This is, as I have said at length, what I believe is at the root of our problem with violence in general. People of their own volition thinking and believing in ways that affect their minds and their souls, souring and sickening themselves in their actions and behaviors.

Your point is well taken and has to some extent entered the conversations following Sandy Hook. It is very important that people understand that the biological illnesses that affect the brain are not at issue here, that these are not the causes of violence. The illnesses of the mind - the ephemeral 'organ' that is created of and by the thoughts we allow ourselves to carry - these are the means by which we arrive at violence.

John Askren - "Never get into a pissing match with a skunk."

Adam Lanza was obviously mentally disturbed and one SICK bastard. (2.00 / 5)
He did not have Asperger's and was misdiagnosed. Does anybody know of he visited a psychiatrist? Many questions sorrounding the killer.

There is a lot I agree with in this post and a lot that I disagree with.

There are various problems with Long's impassioned piece when it comes to "talking" about mental illness, partly due to the fact it contained a slew of questionable diagnoses-Autism spectrum, ADHD, Oppositional Defiant, or Intermittent Explosive Disorder-which aren't officially recognized as mental illnesses at all.

Ok then.

Quoting a psychologist when speaking about mental illness isn't exactly something I can go with either. Again, a lot of things good things here but I strongly disagree with some of your sources and selective quoting. I'll leave it at that and thank you for the discussion this might elicit.  

Just because they are posting on a progressive site doesn't make them progressives. - John Allen

That comment wasn't about ADHD not being a real condition (2.00 / 5)
...but what my interviewers said: that autism and ADHD were considered to be learning disabilities rather than 'mental illnesses'.

I also talked to two psychiatrists, a police doctor and two mental health organisations.

But happy to take your critique for sake of discussion

The p***artist formerly known as 'Brit'

[ Parent ]
As the sister of special ed teacher (2.00 / 3)
and the aunt of a brilliant, compassionate young man with ADHD, I concur with what you have said, Peter.  ADHD is a diagnosable, treatable learning disorder.  The same is true of autism spectrum.  

That's not to say that someone with one of those conditions might not also suffer from bipolar disorder or anxiety or clinical depression -- they could, and sometimes do.  It is these multiple diagnoses that can muddy the waters.

Learning disorders and mental illnesses such as mood disorders are not risk factors for mass and/or serial homicide.  Sociopathy, however, is.  The utter lack of compassion that marks sociopathy allows for the lethal Othering that somehow "justifies" the atrocious acts of twisted people like Mr. Lanza and Mr. Breivik.

"Fighting Fascism is Always Cool." -- Amsterdam Weekly, vol. 3, no. 18
(-8.50, -7.23)  

[ Parent ]
hmm.. (2.00 / 6)
"From what I've been told, Adam was aware of her petitioning the court for conservatorship and (her) plans to have him committed," said Joshua Flashman, 25, who grew up not far from where the shooting took place. "Adam was apparently very upset about this. He thought she just wanted to send him away. From what I understand, he was really, really angry. I think this could have been it, what set him off."

I'm happy to see more restrictions on guns: types, clip size, etc.  It'll be expensive to enforce, but worth it.  I do have to say that I remain unconvinced on the mental health side... it seems that most of the crimes of the Sandy Hook type involve mental disturbance of some sort.

Recent studies have shown that the mentally ill are no more violent than other people, except when they are off their medications, or have been abusing drugs or alcohol.

Indications of mental illness were far more common among the 100 cases than was evidence supporting popular explanations that emerged in the days after some of these spectacular events. Violent video games or television were mentioned in only a handful of cases. Three killers showed an interest in the occult. Racist ideas were apparent in the backgrounds of 16.

But 48 killers had some kind of formal diagnosis, often schizophrenia. Some of the diagnoses came after examinations by psychiatrists in trial preparations -- which did not usually help in their defense, as only eight avoided conviction on grounds of insanity. Twenty-five killers received diagnoses before their crimes, which illustrates another recurring issue: They do not just suddenly snap. Many have long histories not only of mental illness but of failure and dislocation.

In spite of their education levels, for instance, a striking number -- more than half -- were unemployed.

''The high education level is one thing I hadn't anticipated, and the link to unemployment is another thing I didn't realize,'' Professor Blumstein said. ''One of the things that education does is raise expectations, and raised ones are more readily frustrated.''

For people without the emotional resources to accommodate it, frustration ''can lead to rage, can lead to suicide,'' Professor Blumstein said.


No one's denying that... (2.00 / 4)
...most serious crimes of homicide are indicative of severe mental disturbance. But do they fit in the (quite tight) definitions of cognitive and mental impairment that comprise mental illness?

If they did, then most those incarcerated for major crimes would actually be housed in psychiatric institutions. They're not, for obvious reasons.

My main point is that, if mental health was the main determinant of the staggeringly high number of gun deaths in the US, you'd expect to see that replicated in other countries with the same general distribution of mental illness in the population.

But you don't.

Some other factor, I'd humbly suggest, explains the number of fatalities in these incidents. Perhaps the unbanning of assault weapons post 2004 could be one of them.

The p***artist formerly known as 'Brit'

[ Parent ]
so please let me understand... (2.00 / 2)
are you making an argument relative to these large scale events or homicide in general?  I took your writing, perhaps incorrectly, to be aimed at the large scale event problem.  To me these are a confluence of a few things, one of which is availability of guns and another of which is mental illness.

If you want to look at gun deaths in general, that's another matter.  Gun deaths in the US are mostly suicides, followed by homicides, and then unintentional.  The 2009 data on wikipedia looks like (in deaths per 100000 people)

Total gun: 10.2
homicide:   3.7
suicide:    6.1
unintended: 0.2
undetermined: 0.1

Most homicides are gun related (I think on the order of 70-80% but I can't back this up).  I think Canada's experience of gun regulation demonstrates reduction in both suicide and homicide rates (but not by as much as one might think).  I'm not sure these things are in question (except in the MSM). I doubt most Americans are even aware of these things.  Even Michael Moore failed to connect the dots fully with Canada in his Bowling for Columbine mash-up.

[ Parent ]
The US has almost 88 guns per 100 people (2.00 / 6)
A real outlier compared with any other major industrialised nation. I think France comes next with around 30 guns per 100.

With approximately 10,000 gun deaths per year, and 20,000 suicides, the gun related homicide rate in the US is 100 times higher, per head, than the UK.

I don't quite understand why there is a categorical distinction between multiple killings and single homicide. It all adds up. The general level of homicide is about five times greater than the UK, though the attempted murder rate is actually quite similar

In other words: Americans are much better at killing each other when in a murderous rage. The high rate of gun ownership explains the more efficient outcomes.

Since the lapse of the 2004 assault weapons ban, there has been a demonstrable increase in multiple gun killings. The statistics have been reposted again and again in the last few days.

The p***artist formerly known as 'Brit'

[ Parent ]
well... (2.00 / 4)
i don't think we're on the opposite side of the arguments here.  I clearly misunderstood that you were arguing primarily about "multiple gun homicides like Newtown," a relative rarity that does have a relationship to mental illness, where homicide in general does not.  Please note that I am also appealing to the Canadian experience which clearly demonstrates a reduction in homicide and suicide after restrictions on gun ownership were instituted.

[ Parent ]
It is impossible for me to get away from the sheer number of guns. (2.00 / 5)
300 million guns. 30,000+ gun deaths per year. We have too many guns, too easy of access, too many loopholes.
 No argument that people with mental illness need more access to healthcare and as a country we need to step up. But I think its a distraction when it comes to gun violence, it gives opponents of regulations a place to hide.

[ Parent ]
I'm not alone in thinking this way (2.00 / 4)

But there is overwhelming epidemiological evidence that the vast majority of people with psychiatric disorders do not commit violent acts. Only about 4 percent of violence in the United States can be attributed to people with mental illness.

This does not mean that mental illness is not a risk factor for violence. It is, but the risk is actually small. Only certain serious psychiatric illnesses are linked to an increased risk of violence.

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. Anxiety disorders, in contrast, do not seem to increase the risk at all.

Alcohol and drug abuse are far more likely to result in violent behavior than mental illness by itself. In the National Institute of Mental Health's E.C.A. study, for example, people with no mental disorder who abused alcohol or drugs were nearly seven times as likely as those without substance abuse to commit violent acts.


All the focus on the small number of people with mental illness who are violent serves to make us feel safer by displacing and limiting the threat of violence to a small, well-defined group. But the sad and frightening truth is that the vast majority of homicides are carried out by outwardly normal people in the grip of all too ordinary human aggression to whom we provide nearly unfettered access to deadly force.

The p***artist formerly known as 'Brit'

[ Parent ]
"nearly unfettered access to deadly force" (2.00 / 7)
Guns don't make you safer. How often in an average person's life would a firearm even conceivably come into personal protection? Divide that by the likelihood of being able to find the damn thing and use it without making the situation just more dangerous than it already was?
A gun shop owner (with an outrageously large hat - why is that necessary?) was on CNN tonight suggesting that all teachers should carry a gun "on their person" at all times, and all principals should have assault weapons.

Now, imagine portly and flowery Mrs. Haveshamp from 10th grade English with a handgun on her person at all times. Imagine my sweet and deeply liberal step-brother the principle rushing to get his automatic rifle and clips from his office after he hears gunshots ring down the halls. What about this situation smells of a disaster waiting to happen? What part of it doesn't smell like a comedy of errors?

Which of us can actually picture Mrs. Haveshamp and mild Mark Lutze calmly gunning down another person in the first place?

My assertion that there is an aggregate "problem of the mind" that has put/is keeping us in this situation stands. It is the belief that we could conceivably need all these guns to protect us from - well, the rest of us having so many guns - that is the problem behind the problem. But the bloody problem is that there are so many damn guns.

John Askren - "Never get into a pissing match with a skunk."

[ Parent ]
It's more complex than that (2.00 / 7)
Thanks for writing this, Peter. As soon as you cited Long's essay, I cringed, but then saw that you followed it up with some of the criticisms.

You make some important points, one of them being that mental illness isn't easily defined or characterized. I run a listserv for people who use psychiatric service dogs, so by definition, every member of that list (including me, with combat-related PTSD) is mentally ill. Yet I would no sooner expect any of us to walk into a school with a semiautomatic weapon and start mowing down students and staff than I would expect members of my church to do so.

Blaming mental illness further stigmatizes it and exacerbates the problem of people not getting treatment. Already, veterans have trouble getting jobs after their service, because people are afraid they're going to "go postal" someday. Which is why many of them don't seek treatment (although "treatment" at the VA usually means nothing more than becoming a guinea pig for a vast array of mood-altering drugs), and why many in society at large don't seek it. What mother wants to admit that her child is "tetched in the head"?

The problem with mental health screening for gun licensing is that a smart, although deeply disturbed, individual can easily fool a psychologist or social worker. When I was outprocessing from Iraq, I had to fill out a standardized form with questions about my sleep, any disturbing thoughts, etc. (I'm sure the process is much enhanced by now -- that was in 2004.) Do you think for a moment that I would have risked having my return home delayed by choosing a "wrong" answer? Everything would be better once I got home, I figured, and even if not, it would be better dealt with there than in a military hospital or one of those Warrior Transition Battalions. Hell, no...

A few years later, I found myself in a jail cell on suicide "watch" (which has little to do with any actual watching -- more like being stripped of all clothing and accessories, including glasses, given a heavy smock of sorts made out of what looked and felt like flak vest material, and tossed into a bare cell with a metal shelf bolted to the wall and a metal toilet with no privacy from the window-slit). I would not be released until a psychologist could sign off that I was no danger to myself or anyone else. Although the experience actually deepened (understandably, I think) my despondency, there was no way I was not about to convince that lady, once she finally showed up, that it had all been an unfortunate misunderstanding, my words had been completely taken amiss, I was in a fine mood, etc.

So, somebody who really wants a gun would be likely to fool any screener, and there's no way they're going to conduct a detailed background check for every gun registration like they do for security clearances.

I think, like Chris said, the problem is much more slippery. It's a culture, not only of violence, wherein death has become commonplace, sanitized to a degree, and almost amusing, but also of fear and loathing. We fear Muslims and have politicians in the Midwest passing laws forbidding Sharia law (as if somehow they are in danger of being forced into that, if they even know what it is). We fear immigrants, and have governors spinning tales of beheaded bodies strewn all over the desert because of them. We fear that the economically disadvantaged are really just trying to screw the rest of us over, and if we're not careful, our government stands ready to take everything we've got and hand it over to them.

I don't know if there's an institutional or legislative solution, because we do, after all, have the First Amendment. People are free to spew all manner of hatred and lies over our airwaves, and in our day and age, the lie truly can take hold before the truth can pull its boots on. I, personally, try to plead for understanding and tolerance wherever I find divisive rhetoric raising its ugly head, but I'm just one person, and a lot of times if you step into the crossfire, you just become a target for both sides, and even more misunderstanding and mistrust results.

There are groups that try to make a difference, like that church that showed up at a pride parade with signs apologizing for how LGBTQ people have been treated by some Christians, but if it's a movement, it's still in its infancy. Maybe I'm overly optimistic, but I do think that once enough people can unite with a message of love, peace, and tolerance, a tipping point may be reached, and the voices of hate and fear will be overcome. "You can say I'm a dreamer..."

I love my country, but I think we should start seeing other people.

I think both you and Chris are right (2.00 / 7) general terms, about our culture.

But let's be clear about that culture - it's seen a massive decline in violence and homicide over the last 300 years, with a brief upwards blip in the early 60s, we live in a period of unprecedented peace. Even in the US, where your chances of dying a violent death at the hands of someone else are five times higher than the UK, we're still talking in single digits out of 100,000.

Throughout most human history, violent death rates have been between 20 and 30 percent, instead of 0.001 percent

So we're civilising to an enormous degree, and if you read Steven Pinker's amazing fact filled book, The Better Angels of our Nature, you'd actually be very heartened by human progress on most issues of violence, cruelty, even war.

But the access to assault weapons distinguishes the US from most other industrialised nations. I don't believe Americans are five times more miserable or fearful than Britons, they are just better armed.  

The p***artist formerly known as 'Brit'

[ Parent ]
I can't (and wouldn't) deny that the availability of guns is a causual factor. (2.00 / 6)
They make crimes of violence more violent. They probably make crimes of violence more common, simply because these crimes become more achievable.

The argument that these mass shootings would be mass-somethings without guns doesn't hold up both for the common reason (it's hard to kill so many with knives) and also because of flat logistics.

It's harder to walk into a school/mall with barrels of fertilizer and diesel. They're kinda bulky and heavy.

It's easier to grab a bunch of handy guns and ammo that happen to be laying about than to become a backyard chemist and weapons manufacturer.

The cause of the number of guns is enabled by their availability and fueled by the unfounded fears I am pontificating about. The fears may be common outside the US as well, but unless folks can actively act on them over time by going to a handy gun show and stocking up their armory the fears are less likely to lead to massive ammunition expenditures.

Over the past few days I have had a conversation (again on FB, somewhere I typically avoid politics) with a European friend who has been expressing the same fears I mention. He has no guns, only because they are hard to get where he lives. Were he able to easily pack his closet with firearms I have no doubt he would.

John Askren - "Never get into a pissing match with a skunk."

[ Parent ]

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