In the wake of the awful events in Newtown, a "national conversation" seems to have started about both easy access to guns and the ways we deal (or don't deal) with mental illness. Naturally their focus is on how to prevent another one of these mass killings. If it's to accomplish much, though, that focus should probably be elsewhere.
This is because the vast majority of our gun and mental-illness problems don't involve mass murder. Americans' access to guns leads to thousands of deaths each year in accidents, suicides, fights and crimes—mass killings are a tiny fraction of the toll. So getting a national handle on our gun problem, if effective, will mostly be about preventing those mundane kinds of deaths, not the sort of catastrophe that occurred in Newtown. (And that's why getting that handle, as Jonathan Chait explains, won't be the triumphant passage of a single bill, but rather a hard, long-term political grind). Meanwhile, a conversation about how better to address mental illness shouldn't just focus on mass killing—because, again, only a infinitesimal number of mentally ill people commit murder—but rather on preventing common forms of misery and injury: The suffering of people with these conditions, and that of those who care for them. (The latter, by the way, is the suffering to which the I-gotta-be mental-illness crowd is blind.)
Why does it take a Newtown to get us to talk about our more diffuse but deadlier troubles? The human mind, being tuned to stories of individual experiences and feelings, isn't good at assimilating information about large numbers of undifferentiated individuals. For example, 55,000 Syrians are estimated to have died in the civil war now under way in that country. But I'm far more traumatized by the deaths of 27 people last week in Connecticut. I can imagine 27 individuals (it is, after all, just a roomful of people). Upwards of 50,000? Can't do it. As the psychologist Paul Slovic has observed here about our insensitivity to numbers, it often seems as if "the more who die, the less we care."
This week, many Americans are experiencing an impulse to act fast in order to forestall a rare danger. We can let that impulse pass, as most do—or we can channel it into a methodical, longer effort to address common and quite foreseeable dangers as well. That would prevent much death and misery, and there is no downside: Effective action would reduce the chances of another Newtown as well.
Moving away from our current hands-off, what-can-you-do? approach to seriously scary behavior would be one such effort. Here's an example of conversation that might be aborning: The struggles detailed in Liza Long's post about her troubled son, which has been all over the Internet.
That post has brought out some intelligent expressions of sympathy (like this one from Rebecca Schoenkopf) and some intelligent criticisms (like this one). It also, predictably, got Long accused of dehumanizing the mentally ill—just the kind of "you're not allowed to say that!" sentiment that Americans need to set aside.
POSTSCRIPT, 12/18/12: As time passes, I expect that the conversation about "mental illness and violence" will address a profound question I haven't touched on above. Which is: What does it mean to say mental illness caused someone to kill? In that obvious-sounding claim, there are a lot of steps left out between attribute (mental illness) and action (murder). Which is obvious if you substitute other states of being for "mentally ill": A statement like "he cooked rice because he is Armenian" or "she fired the mailroom because she's black" wouldn't make much sense, unless it came with a substantial explanation. This doesn't mean, as some have claimed this week, that we can't draw any connection between some aspect of mental illness and mass killing. It just means that when we make the bare claim, we're just saying there must be something there. Not the same as understanding what the "something" is.
Daniel Lende ponders the connection, or absence thereof, here at Neuroanthropology, referencing Vaughan Bell's piece on the same issue. (Both pieces date from nearly two years ago, and stemmed from a different massacre. Sigh)
I certainly see the problem with hand-waving ascriptions of violence to "mental illness." Yet it seems to me people ought to be able to respond to alarming behavior, whatever arguments we're having about the condition that might have caused it. And I think this desire is compatible with my knowledge that most mentally ill people are harmless. Think of it this way: If my Armenian neighbors start stocking assault rifles, shooting stray cats and talking up the end of the world, I'm entitled to think they should have their heads examined, no? If your reply is "let your neighbors be! how dare you cast aspersions on Armenians!" then I think you should have yours examined as well.
Photo: "Non-Violence" (also known as "The Knotted Gun") by Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd at the United Nations in New York. Via Wikimedia.
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