💊 Guns and mental illness: no easy answer 💊


#1

Reading time: ~10 minutes

Jerod Poore, the founder and webmaster of CrazyMeds, posted this piece on the CrazyMeds forum five days after the Sandy Hook mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Diagnosed with epilepsy, Asperger’s, and bipolar disorder, Mr. Poore is deeply familiar with issues of mental health. I share this because the issue of mental illness invariably pops up in threads on shootings and gun reform.

This is his original post, complete with no modifications. All italicized emphases and citations are his.

I have no further commentary. The piece speaks for itself.


Guns and mental illness: no easy answer
by Jerod Poore
2012 Dec 19

Whenever some horrible event like that at Newtown or the Clackamas Town Center happens the immediate assumption is the killer was mentally ill, even though more than half the time he wasn’t. Regardless of the killer’s frame of mind, two never-implemented aspects of the never-implemented solution to prevent such a thing from happening again are to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill and the easier, yet less frequently discussed, to improve mental health care.

For purposes of keeping guns out of the hands of people who really aren’t that much more violent than the general population, let’s define “crazy.” Sorry, “severely mentally ill.” The first thing most people think of is either “schizophrenia” or “psychopath.” One problem is “psychopath” isn’t a diagnosis. “Psychopathic traits” shows up in the DSM, but mainly in the reference section. What you’re looking for is “Antisocial (Dyssocial) Personality Disorder,” which includes sociopathy, AKA what Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy had. We can all agree keeping guns away from the next Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer is good; except, like every sociopath, they weren’t diagnosed until after they were convicted of crimes that would have prevented them from buying a gun at a place that does a background check. As for schizophrenia, while only a very small percentage of people with schizophrenia are violent, I can understand why everyone would want to keep guns away from someone who says things like, “God directed that bullet” and he got his job due to “the direct intervention of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Good luck in taking away Rep. Paul Broun’s (R-GA) guns.

What about the bipolar? You don’t want me buying a gun, right? When I was hearing people in my bathroom and on the radio plotting to murder me and seeing fires they set in the corners of rooms throughout my house, did I want to get a gun and kill them? No. I did what the vast majority of the mentally interesting do: I called my doctor to talk about increasing the dosage of my meds. I also wanted to buy every kitchen gadget I saw advertised on TV, which would have been cheaper than the Risperdal but probably less effective. Doing something that makes no sense (to someone who isn’t crazy, or in retrospect) but isn’t violent is also a popular option. Actually getting violent in response to an imaginary threat is rare among the mentally interesting. It’s things like physical abuse, substance abuse, actual threats, recent divorce, unemployment, victimization, you know, the same stuff that sets off normal people, that causes some of use to really lose it.

Does taking Ambien or Lunesta count? Because people with sleep disorders do all sorts of crazy stuff. Just ask Patrick Kennedy. How about the epileptic? I ended up in the lock ward of a psych hospital due to a long run of complex partial seizures and having a history of bipolar disorder. As with sleep disorders, people with complex partial seizures do all sorts of bizarre things. While we’re on the subject of seizures, the epileptic have a suicide rate of 12%, not only that, if we also have a psychiatric condition the suicide rate can be up to nine times what it is for someone with the same condition who isn’t epileptic! Is preventing suicide as well as multicide reason enough to keep guns away from us nutjobs? The bipolar have a lifetime suicide rate of 26%, people with major depression 13%, and the suicide rate of combat veterans, with or without a diagnosis of any form of brain cooties, is…rising, but even the reliable numbers I can find about what the rate actually is are all over the map, from 0.15% (the same as normal people) to 20%. One thing is certain: about three quarters of vets who kill themselves do so with firearms.

You want to know who is really more likely to kill someone with a gun, knife, crowbar, etc. than anyone else? Someone who is drunk. Seriously, alcohol consumption is responsible for a huge chunk of violent crimes, especially assaults with firearms. Even living in an area where they sell a lot of booze is dangerous. Cocaine makes people as well, and other illicit drugs cause their share of problems, but booze is cheaper, legal, and has had way more studies published about it. The point I’m trying to hammer into everyone’s skull (and I restrained myself) as often as the crazy = violent canard already is: something as socially acceptable as getting drunk is more likely to cause someone to get violent and kill people than the far less acceptable act of being born crazy. So including DUIs and other substance-related offenses in the background check database would probably reduce the number of individual people killed by guns significantly, but it wouldn’t do much in the way of preventing mass murder. Improving the collection of domestic violence data might help prevent would-be family annihilators from obtaining guns to turn office parks into shooting galleries, as long as they don’t persuade their partners to buy the firearms for them.

Next: exactly how do you go about doing a mental health background check? The way it works now is if you’ve been involuntarily committed to a psych hospital, or otherwise decreed a danger to yourself or others by a judge, you’re supposed to be in the FBI database that pawn shops and merchants at gun shows don’t bother with, but anyone willing to send $40 to a sketchy website can look at. As is repeatedly pointed out, even this system barely works. Worst case example: Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter, was deemed officially crazy by a judge and he didn’t make it into the database. Anyone who receives federal benefits via a trustee because they are mentally incompetent is supposed to be in the database, but only The Department of Veterans Affairs is currently sending those data. Republicans in Congress have introduced the Veterans Second Amendment Protection Act to stop the VA from doing that.

Since the mentally interesting are lower than undocumented terrorists who illegally enter this country in order to steal the jobs of domestic terrorists, the simple answer is to put our medical records in the world’s least-secure database full of all the information you need to steal someone’s identity. Screw HIPAA. Anyone diagnosed with a no-gun-for-you mental illness is immediately flagged. As is everyone currently diagnosed with such. Which means everyone’s medical records need to be scanned for brain cooties to see who needs to have their guns taken away. Those paranoid teabaggers were right! Obamacare does mean they’re coming for our guns! And everyone thought they were crazy.

Adam Lanza had no history of being mentally ill. A week after the shooting there is still no proof that he was mentally ill, so he wouldn’t have been in the nutjob section of the FBI background check database. Even if someone in that database wanted to go postal, what if that person does the same thing Lanza did and use guns that belong to his mother? Are relatives to be included? Spouses? Parents? Siblings? Children? Aunts and uncles? Nieces and nephews? In-laws? And why stop at the mentally interesting for that one, as felons sometimes have families.

Even though we are not much more violent than normal people, just perceived as such, the mentally ill are a convenient scapegoat to explain the inexplicable. The only proof most people need that someone is crazy is the fact they killed a lot of people. Most people can’t accept a motive that doesn’t involve voices in someone’s head. It doesn’t matter if the shooter survived like Anders Breivik, or it was obvious from his history like Wade Page. Racism and idiocy aren’t enough, so crazy has to be involved. When Bruce Pardo dressed up like Santa and, on Christmas Eve 2008, killed his ex-wife and almost all of her family with a homemade flamethrower, the overwhelming rage many people feel when you combine a messy divorce with severe financial problems apparently were not motive enough. Add shame and failure to the mix and the same can said for every family annihilator who kills a bunch of people he feels were responsible for getting him fired, his family, and himself. Mental illness is the only acceptable explanation because people are afraid to confront the fact that humans are inherently violent creatures; that our hands evolved to use fists as weapons as well as to hold other tools. They are afraid to confront how easy it is for the veneer of civilization to slip away; that anger and alcohol disinhibit more effectively than an abnormal psyche or neurological architecture. They are afraid to confront how they themselves could be just a couple more drinks or one more bad performance review away from being the next person to go on a killing spree. It’s far better for the mentally interesting to be the sin eaters than to face that possibility.

Still, the unknown motive is the worst of all. It’s better to have some reason, any reason to explain what happened. Otherwise the universe is a random, uncaring place that could have already sent a gamma ray burst our way that will destroy all life on Earth just as easily as someone can send a message in the blood of the innocent while neglecting to tell anyone how to read it.

Has anyone considered how counterproductive the constant equating of mass murder with mental illness is? How many people who are already skittish about seeking help for a mental health problem because of the social stigma will want to seek help if there is a chance, real or perceived, that their name, address, phone number, social security number, and indication that they are crazy enough to kill their family and coworkers are all going into an FBI database? One recent survey of crazy people found that 38% of the severely mentally ill who didn’t bother to seek treatment cited structural reasons: lack of money, availability, or the inability to get to where the services are; while 21% said it was due to the stigma of being crazy and 26% because they thought the available services weren’t good enough. Of those who started treatment and then quit within a year, 30% dropped out within a year due to structural reasons, 36% dropped out due to stigma, and 35% quit because the available services sucked. So, yes, improving the mental health system will benefit a lot of people who, while somewhat more violent than everyone else, are also ten times more likely to be the victims of violent crime than you normal people! We will never be a protected class, the NRA will never use us as an example of people who need concealed carry permits in order to protect ourselves, and loudly using the prevention of gun-related violence as the reason to expand access to improved mental health services will probably scare off more people who would have otherwise sought treatment.

Talk about shooting yourself in the foot.


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#2

Thanks for this. The speed with which the left decided it was okay to throw vulnerable people under the bus (and in the process affirm the right’s narratives about mental illness and ethnicity being at the root of gun violence) is enough to make anyone’s head spin.

The gun-control movement in the US has done an excellent job of losing me as an ally as I wait for them to espouse a modicum of self-awareness.

ETA: Is there a direct link to the article @Snowlark? I was hoping to send it along the intertubes.


#3

Seriously.

Humans, at our best, are rational, cooperative, creative, awesome creatures.

Humans, at our worst, are stupid, bigoted, superstitious, destructive, groupthinking monsters.

And there is a 100% overlap between those two groups. The Venn diagram isn’t two circles, miles apart; it’s not two circles with a very tiny overlap; it’s one circle.

Giving guns to any of us is a damned foolish idea, because there is irrationality built into our fundamental thought processes. Start pumping in adrenaline, and norepinephrine, and dopamine, and the other endorphins and hormones and the rest of the chemical soup flowing through our brains, and the rational part of our brain more or less shuts down and lets primal instinct (kill or be killed) take over.

Now, given that there are so many guns out there, it may be necessary to arm our law enforcement. Fine. But unless you need to have a gun for a specific purpose (hunting, or law enforcement, or as part of a well-regulated militia), then no one in that second group of people should have a gun. And, once again, we are all in that second group of people.


#4

I don’t want a gun not because poor vision, possible ongoing mental issues, and poor socialization.

I don’t want a gun because I’m angry as hell, easily provoked, and prone to doing stupid things before my mind catches up with the rest of me and goes ‘wait that was kinda dumb.’


#5

The original CrazyMeds forum is no more due to webby codey things I don’t entirely understand. Something about the database getting all screwed up after an IPB upgrade and then being unable to restore it. Most of it is still available through archive.org but, of course, it’s much harder to search for posts now. So while I’m pretty sure there’s an archived copy of it somewhere, I’ve so far been unable to find it.

[Edit for clarity: The only reason I have this is because I saved an .html copy around the time it was originally posted.]


#6

My worst episode was the awesome combination of hypomania/anxiety (we’re still not sure which) with staring-into-the-abyss depression. Depression and high energy are a dangerous mix. If I’d owned a firearm then, I probably wouldn’t be alive to type this.


#7

shiver That sounds really awful. I’ve always been thankful I have just depression without anxiety or mania.
The same thing, depression + energy, is why some experts think suicide rates are highest in the spring, not the winter. It is in the spring, when people feel more energetic, that they actually have the energy to kill themselves.


#8

Yep. As March approached, my energy level just kept ratcheting up. I was sleeping as little as four hours a night without ever once feeling tired.


#9

Update: All I could find was this 2013 Jan 12 snapshot of the thread index for the subforum devoted to mental health in the news, where Poore had created a thread for the piece. However, the link for the thread is dead. I tried later snapshots but got the same result. [Note: I’ve corrected the posting date of Poore’s piece in my initial post from Dec 25 to Dec 19]

I’m now confused about how the Wayback Machine works. I thought it crawled every subdirectory.


#10

The immediate assumption of whom, precisely?

What I usually guess - knowing that it is a guess, since I have little or no evidence - is that the killer is acting upon an ideology. I suppose it might be challenging for me to consider that just because my own ideology places considerable value upon life, that I should assume this to be the case of the ideology of others also. But this could simply be my naiveté, projecting my values upon others as if they are somehow universal. There is no real reason for me to assume that others value life as much as I do, despite the fact that this would obviously be very convenient. Maybe I should try harder to rationalize imposing my values upon others, since I think mine are demonstrably “better”.


#11

Doesn’t everyone?

Trying to impose values on other adults only makes them resent you and your values. If you want to win coverts, demonstrate through how you live that your values are better. If people see your life and want to change their minds to achieve a similar mental state to yours, then offer them assistance to do so. However, you can only ever change your own mind, never anyone else’s.


#12

A few do (Daesh being a prime example). But read Poore’s analysis again. As he points out (and cites), the vast majority are acting out in response to life stress or under the influence of alcohol. That kind of thing.

Don’t worry, we’re all guilty of this at some point in our lives. It’s human.


#13

Can you post this a few more times so I can use up my likes on it over and over again? This is SO IMPORTANT.


#14

Who can say? It sounds like a predictably self-serving bias, so this encourages some skepticism.

Wanting anything sounds like an instant failure of perspective. It would be rather egotistical of me to prefer others to conduct themselves differently. Since values are subjective, “better” has no objective basis. According to one’s goals and values, observed behaviors may seem to be more or less harmonious, but there does not seem to be any way to demonstrate that this frame of reference can or should be transferable to another person.

Models of mental health tend to be fundamentally normative, and it can be argued that the drive to establish norms is itself a coercive - and hence violent (if usually subtly so) - framework for social interaction.

It seems to me that the instinctive populism of attributing a greater value to the quantity of adherents rather than quality of reasoning is what creates violence. The belief that larger groups should be more influential encourages homogeneity. Facilitating people to spontaneously create their own networks with other participants rather than join with other pre-existing ones would be far less coercive. Devise social structures which flip the usual script, and instead reward people and groups for avoiding influence. That would be a real game-changer in human social dynamics.


#15

[quote=“popobawa4u, post:14, topic:80578”]

Wanting anything sounds like an instant failure of perspective. It would be rather egotistical of me to prefer others to conduct themselves differently. Since values are subjective, “better” has no objective basis. According to one’s goals and values, observed behaviors may seem to be more or less harmonious, but there does not seem to be any way to demonstrate that this frame of reference can or should be transferable to another person.

Models of mental health tend to be fundamentally normative, and it can be argued that the drive to establish norms is itself a coercive - and hence violent (if usually subtly so) - framework for social interaction.[/quote]

Okay, then, what’s the difference between wanting to win converts by showing them that your beliefs are better, and believing you should impose your values upon other people since you think yours are demonstrably “better?”

You’re the one that said that you should be trying to impose your beliefs on others and that your ideas are better; I’m just arguing that “imposing” doesn’t work.

I have no idea how that response relates in any way to what you quoted from me. My message was “If you have the goal of changing someone’s mind to be like yours, it won’t work. If someone else has the goal of changing their own mind to be like yours, you may be able to offer them assistance to do so.”


#16

I don’t know that there is one.

No, I said that maybe I should, but I was being sarcastic.

I agree. Although I think that it is always preferable to help others to be more like themselves. People do not truly know each other’s minds in much detail, so they would only be acting upon their self-constructed model of my mind, as they understand it.

Also, to try to be a bit more on-topic, I think that much of the rhetoric I encounter both for and against “gun control” is anti-egalitarian, because it tends to presuppose the legitimacy of property, of private ownership. How about from a leftist perspective, for those who do not believe in property? This is another reason why I think preventing (most) manufacture of guns is more just and practical than continuing to manufacture millions of them, while creating privileged classes of people who are “granted” access. Most people don’t shoot each other dead, but when class structures are pushed upon people, it does become everybody’s problem. The off chance of being shot dead sounds far less dangerous to me than the certainty of living in a class-based society with atomistic hoarding of resources.


#17

This is the bit that people who are not mentally ill never seem to get. You can see it. They do things that on a good day they would never do. They yell at their kids and send mean texts and do all kinds of other things that they don’t think of as the kind of behaviour they engage in. I find many of the not-mentally-ill seem unaware of how disconnected their behaviour in one moment can be from their intentions in another moment.

In just the last two hours I was very frustrated at being “sanesplained” to by someone who thought that without guns a suicidal person could just find another way to kill themselves. As if suicidal people are generally highly motivated, highly self-aware, rational actors who have decided it’s time to die unambivalently and are going to get the job done. Most people don’t approach a coffee order with that much clarity, let alone life-altering decisions.

Sometimes I feel like hearing voices almost makes more sense. After all, those impulses to kill other people are actually coming from a culture that sees violence as a solution to problems. Most people who kill have successfully integrated that impulse to kill into their own personality or regard it as human nature.


#18

Apparently the effect of hearing voices is very much culturally based: in the U.S., they have a tendency to incite the person to violence, but in many other cultures, they incite the person to do housework, or some other non-violent activity.


#19

Yuuuuuuup. And these culturally-informed hallucinations and delusions can be very specific. I transcribed several narrative interviews with those diagnosed with schizophrenia and/or bipolar disorder. The two that come mostly easily to mind: a man who said he was Batman, and another who claimed that Andre the Giant was his son.

We’re cross-referencing as fast as we can! Well, cross-referencing in relevant threads, anyway. If the last several years are any indication, we will, an indeterminate number of days from now, have more dreadful news to discuss.


#20

Then there was the man who said he was cristian bale.