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.
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.