As I write this, I can only begin to imagine the number of people who have jumped to the conclusion that the shooter at the Charleston AME Church was mentally ill. By this time tomorrow, even if the shooter has not been caught, we will hear the pundits debating what kind of disability afflicted the shooter. Undoubtedly there will be more calls for Forced Outpatient Treatment.
There are a few things to keep in mind before we turn Charleston into our reason-to-support-Murphy’s-Law-of-the-day:
We have no idea who the shooter is at this point, except that he is white and in his twenties or thirties.
South Carolina has “Assisted” Outpatient Treatment. So even if he was mentally ill, the much ballyhooed program sure as hell didn’t prevent anything here.
The man had a gun that let him kill a lot of people including a state senator.
White supremacist activity has been on the rise.
Rest assured that the NRA — which backs the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act — will blame this on mental illness at the earliest possible press conference. We’re the scapegoat for this kind of thing every time it happens.
I avoided medications of all varieties for much of my adult life. When I was 36, I had had too much of my depression and opted to start taking Prozac under the care of a psychiatrist at Redwood City Kaiser. I stayed on anti-depressants alone until I was 47 when I finally acknowledged my bipolar disorder after a suicide attempt and added mood stabilizers to the list of drugs that I was taking. Why did I go so long before I sought relief? Mostly because of a prejudice that had been drummed into my head by my mother, a registered nurse, who believed that medications should be avoided at all costs and that my depression and manic swings were character flaws. When I stopped listening to her, the quality of my life improved and I was able to be the person who I always knew that I was.
Many people feel that people who refuse to take medications should be forced to take them. They cite incidents such as a New York City man who went off his meds and started hitting people with a hammer or a schizophrenic woman who killed her baby in a fast food restaurant’s bathroom. The recitation of such litanies by certain advocates who favor forced medication is stigmatizing because the vast majority of people who go unmedicated don’t commit such crimes. Their struggles are worse than those of us who don’t take them, but it is important to understand their reasons for refusing.
It’s going to happen again with the same reaction by the media. Maybe we will wake up tomorrow morning and see the report in our morning newspaper; maybe we will hear about it from a coworker at lunchtime; or it will be the lead story of the evening news. Mass murder. Mentally Ill Man. The words will be slung together and dished out to a public which has been bred to believe that mental illness and violence are strongly correlated. Politicians, doctors, family members, and activists will devise plans to cope with the problem. It happened with the Virginia Tech shootings, it happened with the recent Germanwings crash. Autism, bipolar disorder, depression, and schizophrenia have all been implicated at one time or another. The mentally ill cannot be trusted, goes the drumbeat. Schizophrenics and bipolars are killers.
Statistics show that about 3% of the mentally ill are violent. We are ten times more likely to be the victims of violent crime than perpetrators. Yet when we are portrayed on television or the movies, sixty percent of the depictions commit crimes, especially violence. So coupled with the way news outlets spin stories about mass murder, the general public believes that we are ax murderers and serial killers.
Some reformers use this fear to drive some very specific agendas, namely destruction of our rights to privacy, forced medication, and the resurrection of mental hospitals. The objective is to control the mentally ill. They might argue that this is the best we can get in a society with our values, but that is a weak defense of some very problematic and questionable policy changes.