Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Arizona Shooting: What Does this Mean Regarding Mental Illness? What Should Society Learn?

Since this shooting that occurred this past Saturday happened, our media has been spreading non-stop messages about whether or not the shooter is mentally ill, and in many cases people in articles I've read have been referring to him as a "lunatic", "crazed", "demented", "deranged", and the like, as well as saying things about his personality, his maturity level, and his intelligence, as if these were all related to his assumed mental illness.

It does sound, in some of the things I've read, like he wrote about things in a way that indicates he was probably mentally ill, and on TV I've seen people talking about his behavior at his community college where people assumed he was mentally ill. I don't think we should automatically associate a mass murderer with mental illness, however. In the majority of cases, people with mental illnesses do not commit violent crimes. NAMI released a statement the other day, reiterating this fact.

In fact, a person with a mental illness is far more likely to harm himself, or herself, than he/she is to harm anybody else. It is a fact that suicide is the second leading cause of death amongst college students, and the third amongst high school students in the United States. That is a harsh reality. Why people always care more about murder than they do about suicide, I'm not quite sure. But regardless, we should not allow the public to automatically assume those of us who have a "schizo" diagnosis are gun-owning, potentially homicidal "maniacs". If anything, people with mental illnesses are generally more likely to be victims of crime than they are to commit any crime. Which is a statement I make whenever I speak to police officers at C.I.T. trainings.

That said, I know from personal experience that you can have command hallucinations that could cause you to harm others when you are psychotic. This only happened to me really one time. I was floridly psychotic in the time period around 2003-2004, and living in Virginia. I had come to assume, partially based on conspiracy theories on the internet, that I was under C.I.A. mind control, and the government agency was implanting thoughts into my mind. So when I was watching a public official on TV and heard the voice speaking on the television tell me togo harm him, I immediately threw a teddy bear at the screen and screamed, "NOOOO, I WON'T!!!". It never crossed my mind to actually harm this person. I immediately decided that I would not. The voice didn't say anything about how to do this or any details, but it was just that one phrase. And I never heard that message again, or anything like it.

If, say, I had been raised to believe that owning a gun was important, or that I should, for whatever reason, be violent if I so chose to be, and if I was male and was raised to believe that being a macho-man was part of what society expected of me, and if I was prone to constant voices telling me to harm somebody, it is within the realm of possibilities that I would have hurt somebody. But that was not the case. Since I can imagine this possibility, I can't say, "Oh, people with mental illnesses never end up being murderers". Sadly, in some instances, they do. But it is also a fact that people with mental illnesses are not known to be any more prone to violence than people without mental illnesses, from the research I have read.

I think that there will be, for many years to come, people who are psychotic. I don't live in a country where mental health research is a high priority, and I don't think that there is going to be a cure for psychosis in my lifetime. So it is important to consider that the way society deals with people who have severe mental illnesses matters. It should matter to everyone. If people are killing themselves, personally, I think other people have a duty to care about that. I don't think we should care only when a murder occurs. I think we should care all the time. But since many don't really care about suicide, perhaps the murders that have occurred where the murderers had a mental illness should serve to wake these people up to the need for better mental health treatment, support systems, funding for research, and social services.

I read in this article that Arizona dumped half the people who were receiving public mental health treatment last year off their rolls. That is a problem. When you cut funding for treatment, and people are left to wander the streets in psychic pain, psychotic, hungry and homeless, that is a problem. That is going to have societal effects, and it is going to have very negative effects. Arizona has already seen an increase in hospitalizations and people being locked up in jails since this funding cut occurred.

Further, it would be wise, besides considering the obvious need for more funding for treatment and research, to consider the environment in which we live. Perhaps many "deranged" people who do not actually have mental illnesses, but who would fit my definition of deranged, can watch volatile rhetoric on television or read it online or in newspapers and not get confused by it. Psychotic people can get confused by it. I know, because, when I was psychotic, the things that I read about influenced my delusions. The more I read about Satanic ritual abuse, the more I believed it must have happened to me. The more I read about Manchurian Candidates, the Bluebird Project and MKUltra, the more I believed I was a victim of C.I.A. mind control. The more confused I got.

When you're psychotic, you try to make sense of the bizarre perceptual problems you are having. You try to figure out what the reason is behind the bizarre things you are seeing and hearing all around you. This is one reason why people frequently believe they are Jesus Christ when they are psychotic. That would explain the bizarre occurrences. Miracles and supernatural powers might be behind it all. Or, maybe, if you're watching Fox News a bit too much, you might think the evil liberals and all the Democrats and progressives of any kind are behind your problems. It's not beyond the realm of possibilities that this would occur.

Which brings us to the issue of responsibility. I think the public officials with their hate-filled campaigns, and the teabaggers with their vitriol owe it to the rest of us to be more responsible with their speech. I think putting crosshairs over candidates you don't like on your website, is, plainly dangerous and wrong. And I think we, as a society, should hold these people accountable for the things they say. I think this recent horrific incident is a reminder that this country's hate-saturated media is pretty out of control. And words do matter. I'm not suggesting censorship. But perhaps companies should refuse to sponsor shows on networks like Fox News where the hatred is poured out by the gallon by the right-wing neocons every day.

In the end, the best I think we can hope for out of this situation is the possibility that mental healthcare will become a more obvious need and requirement to those who do not already live with mental illnesses and understand why it's important. I'm not really believing that's going to happen right now, though. I read that Congress is talking about putting Plexiglas around their office building, and people are talking about how public officials need better security all across the media right now. To me, the need for better mental health treatment should be blatantly obvious here to everyone, but that, sadly, does not seem to be the case.

Another possible good thing that could happen would be better gun control laws. Why anybody would be against gun control is beyond me. Guns kill people every day here, and it is a problem that countries where you're not allowed to own a gun do not have. There is no real reason why you would need a gun if you're not intending to kill something, and I personally don't think anybody needs to kill an animal to survive. But even if you did need to kill animals, you certainly don't need semi-automatic weapons that can fire off 31 shots in a few minutes to do it.

Let's hope that there is some positive outcome to this most recent nightmare. I do hope that it will wake some people up. I doubt it will really, but I still hope it will. It's really hard to have faith that there will be an increased awareness about mental illness after this incident, because there have been numerous similar incidents where the murderers were thought to have mental illnesses, and mental health treatment was not improved, and funding was not increased afterwards. It's really a sad commentary on our society that gun sales have increased around the United States since the shooting happened.


  1. A very thoughtful, thought-provoking post, Jen. Thank you.

  2. Jen,
    Thanks for saying what so many people aren't (that the relationship between violence and psychosis is much more complicated than statistical probabilities, particularly when social isolation, ideas of masculinity, command hallucinations, and extreme paranoia are thrown into the mix). Too many folks WITH schizophrenia simply want to disavow Loughner completely.


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