There’s a lot of talk about the role that mental illness may have played in the Sandy Hook shootings on Friday. It is important to emphasize the fact that mentally ill people are more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators of it, and that most acts of violence — including deadly gun violence — are not at the hands of mentally ill people. And when it comes to crime, where we draw the line at “mentally ill” is not always easy. Someone can be deemed mentally competent to stand trial and still be severely mentally ill; someone can understand the wrongness of his actions and fail at adequately pleading an insanity defense and still be severely mentally ill. Our jails are packed with disproportionate numbers of mentally ill people.
I don’t know if Adam Lanza was mentally ill or not. It is difficult, though not impossible, to imagine that a person capable of shooting and killing twenty children doesn’t have something severely wrong with his brain. In the wake of these killings, we’ve seen calls for better gun control laws and better mental health care. Both seem like obvious courses of action, although the gun control laws are more straight-forward. Every society is going to have some proportion of people who are sadistic and violent or sick and violent. We can make a choice to keep the kinds of weapons that can mow down dozens of people in minutes out of their hands. Most other countries already do that and see far fewer gun deaths. There are still acts of violence, but they’re far less lethal. As a comparison, on the same day as the Sandy Hook shootings, a man in China attacked dozens of schoolchildren. Since he was armed with a knife, many of them were injured — but none of them died. Limiting access to semi-automatic killing machines seems like a reasonable course of action.
And of course improving access to mental health care is a good idea — not just in the context of this shooting, but generally. We know that mental health care is hard to come by for people who are low-income or rural or non-native English speakers. But Adam Lanza was none of those things, and neither were many of the men who went on shooting rampages before him. So we also need to talk about things like toxic masculinity. And the terrifying truth is that sometimes, there is no easy “cure” for the mental illnesses that mean a lack of empathy and a propensity toward violence. What’s needed is ongoing treatment and enormous social support for people who are ill, because there’s often not one pill you can take to simply cure a complex problem. This mother, for example, writes about a son who has violent outbursts and who she seems to believe is actually capable of killing her. He’s 13. There aren’t many options for him — the best a social worker can offer is to get him convicted of a crime so that he’s in “the system.” But it’s pretty clear that “the system” is not a good place for mentally ill children (or mentally ill adults). At the same time, this boy is a physical threat not just to his mother, but to his siblings and the people he encounters every day. What it sounds like he needs is ongoing, regular mental health care and therapy in addition to medication (if they can ever find one that works). And he’s not the only one — as Feministe friend Kate Harding also pointed out, there are kids who fit the profile of psychopathy, whose treatment options are less than clear-cut. They need consistent care and monitoring. But no one has a silver bullet.
There are plenty of people (many of them on the Gawker comments to this piece) who argue that children and adults with these kinds of mental illnesses should simply be locked up or over-medicated so that they never hurt anyone.
The vast majority of people with mental illnesses don’t actually hurt anyone. And of course all mental illnesses are not the same, and grouping them together comes with its own set of problems. But what’s clear is that we under-invest in treating mentally ill people.
Mentally ill people are not more likely to be violent than any other group. However, there is a small group of people with particular untreated mental illnesses that may be more violent. As the Canadian Mental Health Association points out:
A small group of people with mental illness (those with severe and untreated symptoms of schizophrenia with psychosis, major depression or bi-polar mood disorder) may have an increased rate of violence. In this group, individuals who are suffering from psychotic symptoms that cause them to feel threatened or manipulated by outside forces have a greater tendency towards violent behaviour. In spite of this, with early assessment and appropriate treatment, individuals with severe illness are no more dangerous than the general population. Community treatment programs have also been found to be helpful in the management of behaviours that lead to crime.
We want to emphasize that the actual number of people who belong to this group is extremely small, particularly when compared to the overall number of people who are coping with mental illness.
When tragedy strikes we all want to talk about how it was the work of a “madman,” whether or not mental illness actually played a role. In the meantime, though, funding to mental health treatment has been repeatedly cut, and families like the one linked have to figure it out for themselves — and most of the time, the most terrible consequences fall on the person who is actually sick.