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Monday, October 2, 2017

Don't Let Them Change the Story: The Narrative of the Mentally Ill "Lone Wolf"

My suspicion is we're going to hear a lot about mental illness in the next few days. A lot. And my prediction is that it's going to be used to sidestep conversations about guns, about misogyny, about toxic masculinity, about all kinds of things. Just another one of thousands of one-off events by yet another "lone wolf." The price of doing business here in the U.S.A.

When an atrocity is committed (and "atrocity" is the right word, not "tragedy"), our culture ramps into "othering" mode. As we grab for the answer of what was no doubt a complex web of factors, if we find something strange and different like a religion or an ethnicity that doesn't belong, then we blame that. 
When the offender is white though, these ways of slipping them quietly into other groups that explain their penchant for committing terrible actions breaks down. 

In a strange sort of "excuse" we rarely give to any other group, suddenly any white person who commits unspeakable violence is "crazy." A lone wolf. No need to dig any further. They were just mentally ill. 

"Mental illness," or whatever euphemism for mental illness is being used ("deeply troubled," "crazy," "insane") does not erase the glaring problem that such diagnoses are far from universal, and even when they happen to be true, they are still irrelevant and focusing on them both harms others and pulls the scrutiny from where it belongs.

It is actually a good and wonderful thing to lament the deplorable state of mental health treatment in this country and culture. The lack of easy access to affordable care is revolting, and the stigma that mental illness is not actually illness and people can just will themselves to be well is huge. Most people are still trying to tell folks with mental illness to eat right and exercise and just try NOT having that chronic disease. And those are the ones not simply recoiling in fear.

However, when people tell the story of mental health ONLY after someone has committed an atrocity, or care about the mental health failings of our culture ONLY after someone has committed an atrocity they're actually making things a lot worse, not better. They are only being harmful, not empathetic.

First of all, they are usually using "mental health" as a code word for "people who do terrible things." The suggestion is that no one who does something like this COULD be sane. And even though this "excuse" is rarely extended to folks who aren't white, let me be absolutely clear about this, and I'll even use bold to make the point:

That is, by every psychological bellwether, completely inaccurate.

People who commit atrocities are then diagnosed and found to have no mental illnesses ALL THE TIME. And the vast majority of people with mental illness are the victims of violence not perpetrators. By a huge margin. Most are more likely to hurt themselves than anyone around them. Doing something terrible isn't an automatic sign of mental illness. 

I know it hurts to think that humans are capable of violence without something being fundamentally wrong with their mental processes, and that we desperately want the capacity to do violence to multiple people indiscriminately to indicate that something MUST be deeply and profoundly faulty in the wiring itself, but that simply isn't true. (Or maybe it is true but what we should be looking at is a culture which "paints the target" with bigotry and excuses the entitled and angry behavior leading up to such an atrocity, not the functionality of specific brains.) We can all be monsters under the right circumstances. Some of us are. And I'm sorry if that's scary, but many who take a gun and do a terrible thing with it are completely sound of mind.

The things that make us monsters are not always bits working incorrectly. Sometimes it's the culture that tells us the "other" isn't worth living. Sometimes it's an expression of the hate we are taught every day. Sometimes it is the enculturation of an indoctrinating force. And for an overwhelming number of men (who are 98% of mass shooters), it is an inability express any emotion other than to metabolize it into suppressed anger. [Edit: Oh look.]

Sometimes the things that make us monsters are the bits working exactly as intended.

When people DO this–when they say that "of course he had mental illness because no one who didn't could have done such a thing"–it's not only sloppy and uncritical thinking, devoid of logic and the slightest psychological accuracy (the actual number is around 60% and race–that is to say being WHITE–is a more statistically predictable factor), but it also perpetuates the stigma that the mentally ill are dangerous merely by virtue of their mental illness. They equate the two in a way that is not only inaccurate, but also causes a lot of splash damage to those who suffer from mental illness.

Am I saying no one who is mentally ill has ever been violent or done something violent? Or am I saying that no mental health diagnosis should ever preclude anyone from owning a firearm? That's ridiculous. Of course some mentally ill people are violent. Some vegetarians are violent. Some mathematicians are violent. But we know better than to blame vegetarianism or mathematics when the latter to cases are true. And even mentally ill folks who do show a proclivity to be violently antisocial–in the rare cases when there is a link between the violence and their diagnosis–it is almost never on a mass scale or bereft of other context.

None of these things is the determining factor in someone's mass shooting. Even if this weren't a post hoc ergo proctor hoc fallacy right out of a Freshman textbook, the correlation is so low as to make the comparison actually disingenuous and not simply fallacious. By significant margins, mentally ill people are more likely to harm themselves or BE harmed by others than when compared to the general population. And certainly compared to groups like young white men. When we go digging for it, like it's the cause, and nothing more need be said, that's the problem. That's called (with bitter irony) a sharpshooter fallacy.

And maybe they'll even find this guy had a host of DSM diagnoses. It still doesn't mean that was the only X factor that matters.

As we untangle this latest mass shooting and the second "worst in history" in less than a year and a half, the red herring of mental illness will be ubiquitous. We might as well turn up proof of athlete's foot or tooth decay for as much as such thinking is lazy and sloppy.

Because here's the other problem: folks are using "crazy" to circumvent a lot of relevant social analysis that could and should go into the calculus of such an event. Everything from the absurdly simplistic and unregulated access to instantly-lethal, multi-lethal, ranged weaponry to the effect of toxic masculinity, to a sense of white, male entitlement.....all swept under the rug because the person was "obviously just crazy." We dismiss dozens (hundreds?) of conversations about the culture these minds were marinating in to simply write it all off as being about mental illness. "Oh well, what can we do. Just another disturbed mind. Hope it doesn't happen again...or again...or again..."

Mental illness affects a certain percentage of people all across the Earth–why do these atrocities so often happen in the U.S.? And why are they so often done BY white males? These are the things we should be digging into–not saying "Aha!" when we find any moment in a shooter's past where someone said they were troubled.

Mental illness is not homologous to "evil." And people really should either bang that drum all the time or think hard before they give it a whack after a highly visible event.

I don't know what they're going to find about this guy. But I do know what they're going to look for. Because the stories we tell that aren't complicated and nuanced and intricate webs of motive and means make things worse for a group that is already erased, marginalized, and stigmatized.


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  2. The gun that he used is actually illegal, so making guns illegal is a mute point. In fact, shooting into a crowd of people is illegal but that didn't stop him.

  3. And Angela... if there were less guns period, there would be less chance of someone getting their hands on one illegally. There are no consequences for someone not properly securing their gun and then it getting stolen. There are no consequences for someone selling a gun to some random individual then that person going on to committee atrocity. SOMETHING has to give. SOMETHING has to change. If we don't do ANYTHING then this is just going to keep happening. We have to change as a nation for this to stop.

  4. Sheva, you are right in that we need to change as a nation for this to stop. But not necessarily in the way that you think. Just as dismissing this atrocity as the act of a mentally ill person is too easy and wrong, so is thinking that just banning all guns will stop this. Timothy McVeigh didn't need guns to bomb the Oklahoma City Building. What we need to do is to start taking responsibility for our words and actions in life and online. We need to stop saying the people that don't agree with us are evil and bad and don't deserve to live. Most of us will never act on those words, but there are some who finally will. We keep seeing it happen in our country. Over. And Over. And over again. Until we, as a nation, as a community, decide that everyone living is allowed to live their lives, regardless of religion, ethnicity, skin color, politics, etc, this will keep happening.

  5. Changing gun laws did change things in Australia and in Britain. Both countries retricted ownership and access after serious massacres. Dunblane in UK and Port Arthur in Australia.

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    2. Yes, and Australia has just had another, very successful gun amnesty.
      Removing most of the guns from a society won't stop all killings, nothing will, but it will reduce them, as it has here.
      People need to ask themselves just how many deaths are acceptable before this very simple preventative measure is considered?

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  7. Chris,
    Thank you for an excellent post. I hope it will be read by many more people. I will share it with others.
    Ray Phoenix

  8. I can hardly wait until this is blamed on God's hatred for gay marriage... Don't worry, someone out there thinks so. Every word you have said needed to be said. Perspective is the best looking glass.

  9. I disagree. In Australia we most definitely have a culture of polarising disagreement online and in real life, which is continually widening. We have a culture of cyclical xenophobia and suspicion aimed at whichever the latest group of "new arrivals" is, and we certainly have rampant inequity based on race, religion, gender, sexuality, ability, etc.

    What we *don't* have is public mass shootings. And that's because the first time it happened, we introduced gun control.

  10. Ok, Chris, as someone with pretty damn severe mental health issues, I have two requests:
    1. Please do not talk about "clinically sane" as a thing. It's not. While the term for discrimination against the mentally ill is "saneism", sanity and insanity are legal concepts, not medical ones, and *most* mentally ill people are not legally insane. (
    2. It is true that when you factor out substance abuse, even the severely mentally ill are not more likely than the general population to behave violently. And it is true that mentally ill people are more likely than the general population to be the victims of violence. However, there is no direct relationship between these facts. When you say things like "And the vast majority of people with mental illness are victims of violence not perpetrators." you imply that the victims of violence and the perpetrators of violence are two totally separate categories, with no overlap. That it is impossible for someone who has ever been the victim of violence to commit an act of violence themselves. (And, by extension, that if someone who says they are a victim of violence then hurts someone else, that that is proof that they are lying). This is a huge problem for, for example, victims of domestic violence. It's also a problem for the violent mentally ill, rare as they are (as we are, I should say, but I haven't had an episode like that in years and don't expect to in the future), because, contrary to what this dichotomy implies, mentally ill people who are violent themselves are even more likely than other mentally ill people to be the victims of violence, because they are more likely to end up homeless or in prison or institutionalized.

    1. I just realized that second thing was not actually phrased as a request. Please do not use constructions like "victims of violence not perpetrators" when talking about the relationship between violence and mental illness. It protects the majority of mentally ill people at the expense of the much more vulnerable and less respectable people at the margins of an already stigmatized community.

    2. Hi Evan, I'm happy to steer clear of "clinically sane" unless I'm speaking legally (even though I sort of was) and have even made an edit.

      However, I'm having trouble parsing your second point completely. Unless I've failed in my transmission, that phrasing is almost verbatim what I've seen from mental health advocates and activists with M.I. when they are discussing statistics. (Are you having a disagreement with the community's phrasing or could I have done a better job?) While I understand and agree with the nuance you're trying to introduce, I'm curious how to do so without losing the fundamental point of the statistic. I guess I'm saying I agree, but I'm not sure how it fits in with the thesis.

  11. Here is my personal story that fights the stigma of mental illness. https://www.amazon.com/More-than-Madness-John-Kaniecki/dp/1539430138/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8