This place matters

This place matters

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Crazy

The massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary school has left me conflicted. I know I've got opinions about everything, but I really don't know whether this shooting was the fault of too many guns or too few, too many video games or too little parental involvement. I don't think an assault weapons ban could prevent future shootings, but I also don't think that lifting bans on weapons in elementary schools is a good idea on any level. 
Yet, in all the debate following the shooting, there is one thing that all people can seem to agree upon. We need to keep guns out of the hands of "the mentally ill."
The thing is, "the mentally ill" had nothing whatever to do with this shooting. Shooter Adam Lanza was never, to anyone's knowledge, diagnosed with a mental illness. Yes, reports are that Lanza had been diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome. However, Asperger Syndrome is not a mental illness; it's an autism-spectrum disorder - a developmental disorder that is not associated with violence in any way, shape, or form. In addition, Asperger Syndrome does not have any symptoms that would make someone with the disorder less qualified to wield a gun than anybody else. Well, aside from the fact that people with Asperger tend to be very clumsy, so I guess they've got, maybe, a slightly higher risk of dropping the gun.
Folks from the president of the United States to the president of the NRA seem to think that a national database of "potentially violent" mentally ill people would make the world a safer place. I think that a national database of mentally ill people will do little more than discourage potentially violent mentally ill people from getting treatment for their conditions.
Yes, there is a modest link between some types of mental illness and violence. Among people with mental illness, the likeliest by far are people with active drug or alcohol addictions, according to research summarized in this National Institute of Justice publication. Also more likely to commit murder are people with active psychosis, such as that associated with schizophrenia. About 35% of people diagnosed with schizophrenia, according to this National Center for Biotechnology Information study, have had one or more violent episode. However, only 1% of people diagnosed with schizophrenia have ever committed acts of violence severe enough to even warrant hospitalization. According to this study in the American Journal of Psychiatry, only about one in every 20 violent crimes is committed by a person with psychosis. 
In simple terms, the vast, vast majority of people with mental illness are as harmless as kittens. And in saying all this, I'm not making the case that arming the mentally ill is necessarily a good idea; I'm merely making the case that all this talk about keeping guns away from the mentally ill is based on a fundamentally incorrect assumption. All these folks talking about how we need to keep guns away from the nutters are buying into and then perpetuating a stereotype that has almost no basis in fact. 
And all of this perpetuation of the myth that we're a threat to others' safety has consequences reaching much further than the debate over gun violence. We're stigmatized, trivialized, and marginalized. One woman with mental illness gives this account of this sort of stigma in one Time Magazine article
I was diagnosed with schizophrenia just a month after Steven Kazmierczak (quickly identified as “schizoaffective”) shot six people to death on the campus of [Northern Illinois University] … Undoubtedly primed by this shooting, wary, uncertain, without enough time to think, my doctoral adviser suspended my graduate assistantship, banned me from the university, and alerted all faculty, graduate students and staff to forward all emails [from me] to her and, under no circumstances, respond.
I think most people with mental illness live in fear of this sort of thing, so they hide in the closet and feel ashamed of a condition that's in no way their fault. They avoid getting treatment because they're afraid of being branded forever. And that's just no damn fair.
Want to blame someone for the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School? How about blaming Adam Lanza?

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