Criminals, Those Who Are Mentally Ill
So some of you might have noticed that there was a presidential debate a couple of days ago. It’s been kept pretty quiet, so I’d understand if you hadn’t seen it. There are any number of things that happened in the debate about which I have many opinions, but there was one off-handed comment in particular which isn’t generating much conversation and that I think is extremely important to address. When asked about gun control, the president responded:
“We have to enforce the laws we’ve already got, make sure that we’re keeping guns out of the hands of criminals, those who are mentally ill.”
The president equated the mentally ill with criminals. The fact that this comment was made in such a casual manner, that it was not called out by Romney at all, and that no one has mentioned it as a faux pas or something inappropriate says something serious about the way America views the mentally ill: according to President Obama, the mentally ill are dangerous criminals who need to be controlled in such a way that their basic second amendment rights may be limited in ways no one else’s are.
There are a few aspects to this comment that are problematic to me. The first, and probably the most important to me, is that President Obama’s comment seems to say that all people who suffer from mental illness are the same. It erases the huge variety in types, diagnoses, severity, or attitudes of those who suffer from mental illness. It may be true that people who are psychopaths or sociopaths may be relevant to a discussion of gun violence and mass shootings, it would be a stretch for anyone to argue that people with binge eating disorder should be brought into a conversation about gun violence. President Obama’s statement implied that we should take a single attitude towards the entire community of those who are mentally ill, flattening out the differences between those who have depression and those who have PTSD, between someone with kleptomania and someone with OCD. The differences in the experiences and symptoms of these people are wide, and it is simply naive and ignorant to lump them all together when talking about policy.
Perhaps more frightening about President Obama’s comment is the fact that not only does he dismiss the variety of mental illnesses, but he equates them all with some of the more severe and violent mental illnesses out there. Those people with mental illness who have committed mass shootings have extreme problems, and problems that manifest themselves in probably the most dramatic way possible. The majority of people who suffer from mental illness have far milder symptoms, and many live completely average lives with just a little more difficulty than someone without mental illness. Obama’s comment ignores that mental illness has treatment options and many illnesses can be treated or overcome. Many mental illnesses don’t affect someone’s social functioning, or affect it minimally. This kind of comment erases the experiences of thousands of people and replaces them with a fictive account of violence and chaos that the mentally ill can do nothing to control.
A further problem with this comment is that it seems to reflect an underlying attitude that many people have: the mentally ill are dangerous. They are destructive. They are bad for society. Nevermind the fact that many of the greatest minds in history have shown signs of mental illness (see Van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, Beethoven, Tolstoy, Tennessee Williams, Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln) but in addition, there is little connection between violence and mental illness. Many if not most people with mental illness are productive members of society. Most of the people I know who struggle with mental illness are actually the most “successful” in terms of outside measures of success (school, jobs, money etc). To use a personal example, I know someone with severe depression and bipolar disorder who teaches special ed and is fantastic at her job, extremely committed, and certainly good for society. The stigma of the mentally ill as “crazy”, unstable, destructive, or dangerous comes from a fundamental misunderstanding: those with mental illness don’t spend all of their time sitting and thinking about their mental illness. They strive as hard if not harder than others to integrate into society and to contribute and feel productive because it is so often difficult for them.
Overall, these ideas and attitudes create an atmosphere where mental illness is viewed as extremely foreign, as something that is out of control because it cannot be understood and because it has negative effects, and thus as something that needs to be control. The fact that our president can stand in front of us and suggest that an entire demographic should have their second amendment rights limited or taken away completely, and that there is no response from the general public, indicates that there is an attitude in this country that people with mental illness are a problem, that they can’t fix themselves, and so they need to be treated like children and taken care of by those who are not “crazy”. This is the same type of attitude that many people seem to exhibit towards minorities or even women. It is condescending, it is erasing of identities and experiences, it does not address the real problems that plague our country, and it demeans some people as incapable of improving themselves or their situation because they are naturally violent and out of control. Education about the real nature of mental illness is incredibly important if we actually want to help those who struggle and improve our society.