The Pacific Heart

Psychiatry, Spirituality and Culture

“Mental Health” is a diversion in the wake of Newtown

Let's not avoid the real roots of violence by focusing on mental health

December 23, 2012

The first question on most journalists' minds in the wake of Newtown seems to be “why did this happen?”  As if knowing an exact and specific “why” could prevent the next event.  In this way, the “why” is like an immunization that keeps us safe – “Oh, it’s THOSE people or THAT situation” – and avoids issues that are uncomfortable for us.  I’ll state once again, as I did in my last blog post, most acts of violence are committed by people without a mental illness.  People with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence rather than perpetrators.  There are some diagnoses, situations and conditions that make the sufferer more likely to be violent; these deserve care and study – but they account for only a minority of the incidents of violence.  The focus on mental health is a diversion that “immunizes” supposedly sane people from examining the roles we all play in the culture of violence.

It’s tragic that it takes an event like this, and a “National Conversation” in order to make progress on something that seems straightforward to compassionate and focused people who have studied and dealt with violence, like Mayors Against Illegal Guns (http://www.mayorsagainstillegalguns.org/html/home/home.shtml).  Instead, a variety of groups arise to protect their interests.  The NRA resists any form of gun control, and advocates for more guns in schools.  Some in the media equate “balanced coverage” with giving equal attention to all issues raised; this is after very misleading and irresponsible early coverage that not only misidentified the gunman but also blamed Asperger’s Disease for the massacre, a claim without any basis in fact.  The Mental Health Industry seems to want to use the incident to advocate for more mental health resources.  The culture warriors want to blame video games.  Again, the media reports on all of these, and patronizingly claims that “we have to deal with all of this”, masquerading their cowardice as broadmindedness, in my opinion.

Why does violence happen?  We have to go to the root.  The basic reason one person kills another is – duh – they have devalued the other person’s life, or, a variant, they think that killing another person will somehow guarantee their own survival.  Fear and hatred undoubtedly underlie nearly all incidents of intentional violence.  The paranoid, delusional killers are similarly living out some fantasy of control that devalues the lives of others, which likely ultimately rests on their own feelings of being devalued themselves.

Once someone has this idea, how do they kill?  Clearly, they gain access to a weapon

What are our points of intervention on this cycle?  We can do a lot on both.  First, and most directly amenable to change – we need to limit access to weapons.  Background checks, limits on magazine rounds and assault rifles – these are supported by a vast majority of people, even 75% of NRA members.  (The leadership of the NRA seems incredibly out of touch with the membership and has a “tin ear” for the national debate, according to one commenter I heard and agree with.)

The first cause is more difficult.  How do we work on helping people to value life more?  What causes them to devalue life?  This requires action on all levels – individual, family, community, school, country and world.  There are many organizations working creatively on this.  I would say the basic remedy is more community connections – real, and not virtual.  What gets in the way of that?  Why don’t you tell me, from your perspective, in the comments section.

Psychiatrist Paul Appelbaum, MD pointed out this week, the most likely predictors of violence are not mental health or neurological issues per se, but age, gender and belief system.  Young males with a paranoid view of the world are more likely to be violent, I would say because they are most likely to be fearful and devalue the lives of others.  But the vast majority of even this group do not commit violence.

However, I think this demographic insight points to some interventions.  The mental health system will certainly continue to identify and hospitalize people who present to us with a stated desire to harm themselves or others, or are extremely disorganized and unable to care for themselves.  These individuals could reasonably be limited from accessing firearms for some period of time.  We could do more to explore and work with people with paranoid views of the world.  But they may not always present to us in mental health settings.

I propose that we think more broadly.  We do need a cultural change – and this is not in the ‘material objects’ of culture (video games, movies, etc) so much as in where culture is actually held: our relationships.  The relationships between individuals and the community are strained.  This feeds a paranoid view of the world.  We see evidence of polarization; most of us live in some “bubble” or another, and never learn how to talk to or learn from people of different perspectives.  We often don’t even know our neighbors well.  People of different perspectives learn that they just need to speak louder and with more vitriol in order to inflame the situation and ‘get heard’.  Our own government can’t even come to reasonable solutions for important problems, because some are driven by their own narrow interests rather than an ability to see the other side as having some valid point of view.  So we’re on a treadmill of successive devaluations of others, and power games.

This is another reason the NRA’s idea of arming “good guys” to fight “bad guys” doesn’t seem to hold water.  It further adds to polarization and devaluing of people’s lives.  More importantly, there were armed security guards at Columbine and Virginia Tech.  This seems an absurd and dangerous idea designed mainly to deflect attention from the causal chain outlined above.

America, despite all her flaws, is still the “hope of the world” in many ways.  Many people abroad still think of America as a positive force.  We really have a responsibility, to ourselves and the world, to promote reasonable, psychologically valid solutions to our problems. 

It’s time for National Emotional Intelligence.

©  2012 Ravi Chandra, M.D. All rights reserved.  Subscribe by RSS above.  Sign up for a quarterly e-newsletter to be the first to find out about my upcoming book on the psychology of social networks through a Buddhist lens, Facebuddha:  Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks, at www.RaviChandraMD.com.  Facebook page: SanghaFrancisco-The Pacific Heart. Twitter @going2peace. Thanks for your shares on Facebook, etc.!

Ravi Chandra, M.D., F.A.P.A. is a Board Certified Psychiatrist and writer in San Francisco, California.

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