February 20, 2013

Scapegoating the crazy folk

I've been looking at the President's plan to reduce gun violence.  There's some good stuff there, but I have lately wondered if there is too much emphasis on mental health.  As if mentally ill people are the only ones shooting people. 

The President's plan, in the section on background checks, says some alarming things.  It contains a whole section on mental health care, and it discusses mentally ill people in the section about background checks.  The plan uses the euphemism, "dangerous people," to refer to mentally ill people.  So now, along with being called nutjobs, maniacs, lunatics, and monsters, we are "dangerous people." 

The NRA's LaPierre calls for a "national database of the mentally ill."  I guess we get put on his list, whether we are "dangerous" or not, just because we happen to be sick. 

But that's not right.  The majority of gun violence isn't attributable to mental illness, so don't blame crazy people for it.  There's no word for that except "scapegoating."

In an interview, Pamela Hyde, JD, administrator of the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration warns that we must
"disconnect the discussion about mental health from the discussion about violence. While there is no question that some people with mental health problems perpetrate violent acts, so do lots and lots and lots of people who don’t have mental health problems."

The Huffington Post gives us the sad information that, as of February 1, U.S. Gun Deaths Since Sandy Hook Top 1,280.    The article discusses many accidental shootings, and talks about "silly arguments" becoming "final arguments," but it doesn't mention any crazy people doing the shooting.

My friend, Heather, commented on a previous post,

"When you live in a country that has so many people vehemently against providing basic health care for everyone, it leaves you wondering just how much a human life is worth to these people? When you have people say that those without insurance and cannot afford care should just die? Is it any wonder that we have so many people killed with guns."
Heather just might be on to something here. 

Randolph Roth, author of American Homicide, researched homicide rates in America and western Europe for a four-century period. Discussing his book, he reveals that

"[F]actors that seem on the face of it to be impossibly remote—like the feelings that people have toward their government, the degree to which they identify with members of their own communities, and the opportunities they have to earn respect without resorting to violence—determine homicide rates."
Homicide rates aren't correlated with poverty, drugs, alcohol, unemployment, or race, according to Roth. Rather, it's the predisposition to "view people as enemies or rivals or prey" that determines whether people "are emotionally prepared to be violent at the slightest provocation or whether they refrain from violence even if they are brutalized or humiliated."

In Roth's discussion of his research, he never even mentions mental illness as a factor in high homicide rates.

A CNN article reminds us that mass shootings are only a small fraction of America's gun crime. Its authors agree with Heather that many shootings are caused by societal ills, saying

"Through a complex mix of violence, institutional arrangements and exploitation, black Americans were pressured into ghettos, which are the hotbeds of contemporary gun violence. Their inability to escape their conditions is not a choice but rather the byproduct of continued structural discrimination. Slowing the tide of inner-city deaths through gun control is therefore a modern-day civil rights issue."
Got that?  A civil rights issue, not a mental health issue.

Mass shootings are certainly heart-breaking and shocking.  And it's good that people understand how hard it is to get mental health care.  But an article published shortly after the Newtown shootings cautions against focusing on mental health care as the cure for gun violence:

"Such discussion, say psychiatrists and mental-health experts, may be beneficial if it actually leads to increased care and treatment, as well as better funding of treatment programs. But it also runs the risk of further stigmatizing mental illness or reducing civil liberties of the mentally ill, if people start to associate mental illness with violence."

Whether you want to call it stigmatizing or scapegoating, it's clear that blaming mentally ill people for gun violence is no way to stop the problem.