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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.

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Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at


  1. October 19, 2012 at 3:33 pm —

    I heard that remark, but I honestly interpreted at the time, and I still think this is correct, that he both said and meant to refer to two groups: Criminals and Mentally Ill.

    I also took that as shorthand for “Criminals who have committed certain crimes” and “people with certain mental illness”

    • October 19, 2012 at 5:42 pm —

      I copied the quote direct from the transcript, so if it’s wrong then it’s wrong in the official version…

      • October 19, 2012 at 6:08 pm —

        Those were indeed his exact words. The meaning you assume for them is very likely wrong. It does not reflect the position of the party he heads, it is not likely that a lawyer would conflate such concepts, it does not fit with what we would expect from a person who pays attention to social justice issues.

        The points you make are great points, but using this interpretation of those words as a foil with an election 18 days out given the potential consequences of swaying votes is not a well thought out strategy.

        • October 20, 2012 at 3:52 am —

          The timing may be off, but Olivia has hit what I consider a major nerve here.

          A week ago, I was “let go” from my job. Reasons stated were fluff like “not fitting with the direction the company was headed” and the like. As it turned out, a bit of research on my part turned up some interesting things.

          About one week prior to this event, I made my first ever mention (in over two years) about my mental illness with my boss, as he was about to unknowingly exploit it in an email. Within the days that followed, we had a meeting that also preyed on the weaknesses of my illness to give himself leverage, followed by his discovery of my personal blog, where I cite many things–mental illness, anti-theism, and so on. It’s been over a week and he’s still surfing the site every damn day.

          I know that the combination of things got me fired, but my illness was a huge and primary factor in that. He would never understand or have compassion about it, and it was much easier to cut me out than to learn how to work with me. This is the way of things now…treat mental illness as a joke, as though it is all made up, or worse–that we actually have control over it and choose to have our mental illnesses.

          It’s better being out of that environment, but I have to wonder if this sort of thing happens to other people as well.

        • October 22, 2012 at 11:05 am —

          I think I probably misstated myself somewhat. I don’t think that President Obama officially endorses a position in which he is dismissive of mental illness. I don’t think that when asked consciously about it he would probably say any of these things. What I do think is that the way our culture refers to mental illness, and the way people have a dialogue about mental illness (particularly when they are not thinking carefully) says a lot about our unspoken assumptions. I didn’t really mean this as a criticism of the president, but more that I think the way he spoke is indicative of larger cultural attitudes that came through from the flippancy with which he spoke.

      • October 22, 2012 at 12:23 pm —

        I’m with Greg here. While a literal reading of the sentence implies an equation of “criminals” and “those who are mentally ill,” it’s not uncommon in unprepared speech for conjunctions to be dropped in constructions like this. That is to say, if you’re going to list things at the end of a sentence, you might list them like this, that, and yonder. If you’re composing the sentence as you speak, and you decide as you start saying “that” that “yonder” isn’t really relevant, you’ll just drop “and yonder” from the end, leaving you with this, that. It’s not correct English, but it’s how it often gets spoken.

        So, we can apply Occam’s razor here: The two competing hypotheses are that Obama misspoke (which he, as every person, has been known to do in the past), or that he’s honestly trying to equate the mentally ill to criminals. I’d wager the former is more likely here.

  2. October 19, 2012 at 4:42 pm —

    As someone who HAD a mentally ill sister who was able to get her hands on a gun in a single day, and used it to end her life, I TOTALLY agree with the statement he made. I wish there were a way to have kept her from getting that gun, at least for the 24 hours she may have needed to get into a state where she no longer felt compelled to use it.

    • October 19, 2012 at 5:41 pm —

      As someone who has been suicidal, the ability to get your hands on a gun is not the factor that determines whether you will go through with suicide.

      • October 19, 2012 at 6:09 pm —

        Absolutely. There are well funded powerful political forces that want to make sure that this is not understood.

      • October 22, 2012 at 12:30 pm —

        As someone else who has been suicidal, I can say the exact opposite. For clinic depressives, suicide is often a decision made rather impulsively (over the course of one depressive episode, which could be mere hours). Whether or not suicide is successful depends a lot on the convenience of various options. For me, pills were convenient, so I attempted an overdose. If a gun were convenient, perhaps I would have shot myself. Luckily the overdose didn’t take (or have any noticeable effect at all on me), but I certainly wouldn’t have been so lucky if I’d used a gun.

        But that’s just an anecdote. This has been studied, and limiting the ways that an at-risk person could possibly take their life actually does help decrease the rate of suicide. See here, for instance.

        Of course, none of this directly means that we should limit access to firearms on the basis of depression (you can’t get an “ought” from an “is”). That’s a far more complicated question that I can handle in a comment.

      • October 22, 2012 at 5:39 pm —

        It is absolutely a factor, as indicated by a great deal of evidence. Or more to the point, being able to get your hands on a gun doesn’t change *whether* you will go through with it, but whether you will successfully kill yourself. There is absolutely no more effective way to commit suicide than with a gun.

        And I think it is important to note that by virtue of being female, you are unlikely to use a gun in a suicide attempt (please understand, I really hope you don’t try – been there and it sucks). The thing is, women don’t tend to consider suicide the same way that men do, so having a gun around is a *lot* less likely to influence the decision of a woman to commit suicide than it is a male (though as Lisa can unfortunately attest, this is not absolute).

        Roughly 60% of people with untreated depression will make a serious attempt at suicide. Once an attempt has been made, it becomes all too easy to try again. The big issue about guns is that a lot of people who will attempt to kill themselves, will only attempt to do so if they have a reasonably high chance of succeeding. Take the convenient gun out of the equation and they are less likely to make the attempt, because nothing is more likely to be successful than “eating” a bullet. This isn’t controversial or questionable. While the CDC web site is a pain to navigate, the figures are there – as are the conclusions.

        And please forgive me if I come off as trying to marginalize the experience of women and suicide. I assure you I am not. The fact of the matter is though, women attempt suicide at significantly higher rates than men, but the rates of successful suicides are considerably higher in men than women (women @ approximately 7 per hundred thousand, versus men @ approximately 24 per hundred thousand). This is because men tend to use more violent methods, which also happen to be the most effective. Nor am I trying to marginalize your own experience Olivia.

        I am mentally ill, have desperately wanted to die at times in my life and absolutely support keeping guns out of the hands of many people who are mentally ill. I am not keen on making that a blanket rule, I think it is important to take a nuanced approach. Not all mental illness is the same, not even when the diagnosis carries the same name. But when it comes to certain diagnoses, I think it would be best to keep guns out of the hands of people who suffer it.

        That said, it is virtually impossible to reasonably implement a law that would allow for this. There is absolutely no way to keep guns out of the hands of anyone who is mentally ill, who hasn’t been arrested for something, without violating their privacy. And yes, I think the right to privacy of health concerns far outweighs the need to keep guns out of the hands of a few people who might use them to harm themselves or others.

  3. October 22, 2012 at 1:09 pm —

    Direct quote.

    Olivia: “The president equated the mentally ill with criminals.”

    gregladen: “Those were indeed his exact words. The meaning you assume for them is very likely wrong.”

    Olivia: “I didn’t really mean this as a criticism of the president”

    Malarkey. Stuff. Hogwash.

  4. October 22, 2012 at 2:48 pm —

    I started to write a followup comment but then, as is often the case, it turned into a blog post, which is still mainly a comment:

    Short version: The point of this original blog post is far more important than whether or not Obama said one thing or another. Also, it’s complicated.

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