Sunday, March 10, 2013


Scapegoating the Mentally Ill
(A work-in-progress, on the slow course of progress...)

The current national discussion about gun control, though plainly necessary and important, takes a dangerous turn when it sets sights on people with mental illness.

I don't have a mental illness and can't claim to understand the many varieties and ramifications of that diagnosis.  But I have a physical disability, which can be just as stigmatizing. 
I was born with spinal muscular atrophy, a genetic neuromuscular weakness.  I'm a lifelong wheelchair-user with pretty much no use of my concentration-camp-thin arms and hands. 
Sometimes when people see me they become a little afraid.  I don't want people to fear me, and I don't think we should fear people with mental illness either.

To be sure, the need to cut gun violence is paramount.  And I'm not against background checks to screen gun buyers for a criminal record.  Recidivism among violent offenders is alarmingly high.  That's a very different kind of precaution, though, from targeting those who rely on meds to keep their thoughts and emotions aligned.

I concede that mental illness enters the debate only in the context of preventing sufferers from falling through the cracks, to help them as much as to avert a future disaster.  This is not a modern-day witch hunt.  Yet I can't help feeling that the notion of using mental illness as a guide to identifying those who might be likely to commit violence one day just smacks of the disability equivalent of racial profiling. 

As someone who was not expected to live to adulthood because of a physical condition, but is now a 50-year-old husband, father, Harvard graduate, author and professional journalist, I don't put much stock in using a diagnosis to predict what people are and are not capable of. 

The fact is, the majority of people who are diagnosed with a mental illness are nonviolent.  Murderers, no doubt, are not in their right minds.  Yet many fatal shootings are never connected with a pattern of mental illness.  Gang killings, to name one prevalent variety, may be motivated as much by drug use or peer pressure as anything else.  Not to mention jihadists, who kill with religious fervor but rarely go for psychological evaluations.

To me, the assumption that the mentally ill have especially itchy fingers stems from age-old stereotypes.  Back in the 14th century Geoffrey Chaucer wrote that "cripples" were "crafty," in the sense of sneaky.  Where would nightmare tales be without disfigured, limping, one-armed, hunchbacked, peg-legged, hook-handed, and eye-patched fiends?  These are the forebears of the modern "psycho killer"—a dysfunctional, deformed mind and body signifying a defective soul.  

Science has been in on it, too.  Through the 1970s serious academic studies attempted to link particular physical traits with criminal behavior.  At some universities, college students were routinely photographed in various states of undress to document their proportions—the ratio between their heights and their head sizes, and other minutia—in an attempt to forecast their fates.

Don't get me wrong.  We must do all we can to curb gun violence.  But in our rush to solve a virulent problem, let's not resort to what is really nothing more than a form of scapegoating.  We might as well single out people from a particular neighborhood or socioeconomic subgroup that has a high murder rate—yet that would be unthinkable, wouldn't it?  Focusing on those with mental illness should be just as abhorrent.