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The Arizona shootings and the mental illness-violence link

Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, professor of psychology | January 12, 2011

Unusual behavior for me, but I found myself this weekend checking the web constantly for updates on Congresswoman Giffords. I would hold my breath, brace for the worst, pray for her recovery. Brain swelling and infection continue to be significant risk factors, but the latest report is that she is breathing on her own, and the fact that she’s able to respond to auditory input and move her extremities is huge. I grieve for those who lost their lives, along with the rest of the nation, hoping this incident can remind us of the humanity that unites us and deserves respecting despite our political differences.

The smiling mugshot of Jared Loughner, meanwhile, has I’m sure sent chills down people’s spine. The picture, and the reports of his increasingly erratic behavior over the past year, convince me that mental illness played a critical factor. It infuriates me both that states do not make it a priority to update the National Instant Criminal Background Check database with records of mental illness, and that Loughner did not receive the care he needed in time to prevent this tragedy. With so many people aware of the problem, including his friends and his teachers, diffusion of responsibility still won out and Loughner was left to manage for himself.

Obviously, he could not.

Don’t defend the monster, I can hear people saying. I’m not. Loughner’s actions are indefensible. But I do want to speak out against the “monster” label we are so quick to use in the aftermath of such horrific events. Why? Because such labels a) slow progress in efforts to combat mental illness stigma; b) reduce our willingness to put dollars behind mental health services and social services; and c) reduce the likelihood that those with mental illness will seek and stick with treatment.

Berkeley psychologist Stephen P. Hinshaw, in his excellent book The Mark of Shame, provides a very readable history of social perceptions about the mentally ill, and how those perceptions have allowed cruel and inhumane behavior masquerading as science and treatment. Cruel and inhumane behavior against fellow people, as with Abu Ghraib, is facilitated when we see members of outgroups (in this case, the mentally ill) as something less than human. In other words… as monsters. In this post, I note how zombies and aliens would be good against prejudice because they would highlight our common ingroup membership. But the somber aspect of this message is that when we think of others as belonging to a different category than us, we are all the more likely to feel justified in punishing them.

A brand new study led by my colleague Andy Martinez (Martinez, Piff, Mendoza-Denton, & Hinshaw, in press), which is about to come out in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, confirms that people are especially likely to deny humanity to people who suffer from mental illness. Using a nationwide sample, Martinez showed that merely labeling a person as suffering from a chronic mental illness led people to think of that person as more animalistic: without the capacity for reason, control, or compassion. Tellingly, what explained these attributions of animality was the sense of danger that the mere label of mental illness aroused in people.

But isn’t this exactly what defines Loughner– the lack of capacity for reason, control, or compassion? Perhaps– but the unfairness lies in the assumption that all people who suffer from mental illness are dangerous. Being male, for example, is a greater risk factor for violence than mental illness, and you are more likely to be the victim– rather than the perpetrator– of violence if you suffer from mental illness.

In other words, the incidence of violence among the mentally ill is very low, but images of Loughner’s mughsot overwhelm our senses. Events such as the Arizona or Virginia Tech shootings, coupled with media images that include Hannibal Lecter (Silence of the Lambs) and Arkham Ayslum (Batman) contribute to a grossly exaggerated perception that people with mental illness are violent. The automatic association of mental illness with violence, as Martinez shows, leads us to then dehumanize. And this, in turn, makes it less likely that people with mental illness will seek help, or be offered help, or stick with treatement.

As David Brooks notes here, this tragedy should put the spotlight on mental health policy and the provision of mental health services as a national priority.

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Comments to “The Arizona shootings and the mental illness-violence link

  1. Mental illness, people walking the streets when they should be in a hospital, being monitored and medicated.You may thank Ronald Reagan for the huge and wide spread problem. He did if you check the the history books eliminate the institutions that housed the people that now wonder the streets. The main reason for his lack of compassion was to find the money for a first strike weapon, F-117 stealth fighter, and the B2 stealth bomber, hence the fall of Soviet Union because they could not match the technology.

  2. Seriously Professor, does any of your professional expertise in “intergroup relations, cross-race-friendships and cultural psychology” provide you with immediate solutions that we can apply to enable us to control our destructive emotions in time to guarantee our survival with an acceptable quality of life?

    How can we prevent “The Arizona shootings and the mental illness-violence link,” and never-ending slaughter of humans around the world?

    We Must Do Better Now! We cannot wait any longer for “further investigation.”

  3. Professor Mendoza-Denton, We Must Do Better

    Because of posts on Berkeley Blog I have come to realize that knowing history is not nearly enough to enable us to protect humanity from creating tragedies that can destroy our future.

    What I have discovered is that we must create a way to improve our thinking that shall enable us to actually practice the principle of “Peace On Earth” as if the survival of the human race depends on it, because it does.

    I pray that you and your colleagues find a way soon.

  4. You are right on target about diffusion of responsibility as a hugely significant factor in this tragedy, but I think you’re missing the point of what “defending the monster” really means.

    Personally, I have sympathy for both the victims of Loughner’s actions AND Loughner himself. In this case then, yes I am “defending the monster.” But the term “monster” here does not refer to Loughner as an abnormal person, it refers to him as a perpetrator of horrific acts. It seems you are putting far too much an emphasis on the “stigma” of his mental illness. Being outcasted certainly did not benefit Loughner’s disease, but it is the DISEASE here that caused the action, not society’s intolerance of it.

    This is a case of an increasingly dramatic schizophrenia that went untreated despite a sickening abundance of warning signs. That is why I have sympathy for Loughner; trapped in his own disease, and incapable of managing it.

    The saddest thing about this story is how easily it could have been avoided. When an otherwise bright and passionate person, obviously struck with mental illness, is continually abandoned by his friends, parents, counselors, and teachers, they are headed toward disaster. Left to his own degeneration, that disaster manifested finally in this tragedy.

    I can only hope that people in positions of trust and care will learn from this event and realize that sometimes, YOU need to step in. YOU need to act. Diffusion makes me sick.

  5. Professor Mendoza-Denton, you did a great job of introducing the mental illness-violence link to explain part of a major problem we are facing in our society today, but what about the behavior discussed in the following L.A. Times article today?: “Rancor prompts resignations in Arizona – Three Republican Party district officials step down, citing increasing venom from conservative ‘tea party’ rivals.”

    The problem seems to have many aspects to it that must be included in this discussion if we are truly going to find comprehensive solutions with the sense of urgency that appears to be needed, especially if we really want to achieve “reason, control, or compassion” in addition to morality and ethics in our political and social institutions.

  6. Chancellor Birgeneau issued a most excellent Berkeley News statement that should also be included in these discussions, with the following important excerpt that applies to this post:

    “Such a brutal and violent attack on an individual who has devoted herself to public service is deeply regrettable. It calls upon us as an academic community to stop and ponder the climate in which such an act can be contemplated, even by a mind that is profoundly disturbed. A climate in which demonization of others goes unchallenged and hateful speech is tolerated can lead to such a tragedy. I believe that it is not a coincidence that this calamity has occurred in a state which has legislated discrimination against undocumented persons. This same mean-spirited xenophobia played a major role in the defeat of the Dream Act by legislators in Washington, leaving many exceptionally talented and deserving young people, including our own undocumented students, painfully in limbo with regard to their futures in this country.”

    Chancellor issues statement on Arizona shootings

  7. Your scholarship and research into the issues surrounding mental illness in our society today are commendable. I would only suggest that you look at the concepts of “internal controls” for individuals relative to ‘external controls” for society in the context of existential, real-life social action.

    Certainly, security needs are paramount for all of us. What I seem to be hearing you say is that there is a goal for balance between society’s security needs and individual rights for those who suffer from mental illness. I believe most people would agree, at least intellectually, that not everyone suffering from mental illness is violence-prone. But when it comes to existential reality of whether or not you let someone suffering from mental illness into your life – socially, in the workplace, in your home, etc. – the barriers come up. Discrimination is deemed proper on that basis more often than not.

    From my point of view the balance will be found between external controls – metal detectors, gun control, criminal tracking, etc. – that can reassure the public of their need for safety. And for individuals identified as mentally ill, their treatment and progress will be monitored on a case by case basis.

    The days of relying on an individual’s internal controls (call it “character”, “parenting”, “personality”, or what have you) in the public forum have long since gone in favor of more external ones. Had the meeting in Tucson been held indoors with metal detectors and screenings, the tragic events would not have occurred and the shooter would have been deterred.

  8. I think it’s an atavistic response. People who don’t make sense or seem to understand what’s going on throw us back to a primal condition before language and social norms kept order. There’s something of the ‘sick animal’ response — animals avoid one of their own exhibiting abherrent behavior — and also perhaps our fear of spirits, ghosts, possession. Belief in demons came way before belief in neuroscience.

    • Thanks Margaret, for answering my question. I care about politics generally, and all the comments are very interesting, but in this case I’m far more interested in why we respond the way we do to odd behavior. More new knowledge about this has got to be important for helping professionals learn how to react in the most useful way possible to this sort of behavior. I am so sorry for Loughner’s community college advisors. They seem to have done their best within the law and “best practices” with little social or intellectual/academic support (because neither really exists, that I know of.) But they must feel truly awful anyhow. Surely we can learn more about this human reaction, atavistic or whatever, and then learn how to do a better job of responding to people in crisis.
      I hope Prof. Mendoza-Denton has a chance to write here. I’m very interested to know whether any of this touches on his research at all. (Or anyone’s)

  9. 1. Using a nationwide sample, Martinez showed that merely “labeling” a person as suffering from a chronic mental illness led people to think of that person as more animalistic: without the capacity for reason, control, or compassion.

    2. The “automatic” association of mental illness with violence

    Our language betrays us:

    1. “Labeling?” Respectfully: “diagnosing.”
    2. “Automatically? ” It is a trained response.

    We are led to believe, our words lead us.

    Harold A. Maio, retired Mental Health Editor
    Fort Myers, Florida

  10. My deepest sense is that many of these issues are far more simple than fear and years of conditioning to be fearful would have us believe. Certainly there is a continuum of mental illness. I know in my heart that anyone who commits an atrocity has been and still is a victim of equally great atrocity. This does not excuse the behavior, but I see all violence, especially violence perpetrated by individuals as a desperate cry for attention and ultimately love.

    Yes, it is very uncomfortable to live in a city with so many homeless people, many of them mentally ill and unable to care for personal hygiene, control speech, etc. When I can remember that the smallest things make the largest impact, a kind word, pat on the arm, gesture of our shared humanity, or if I am unable to muster that, a quick prayer of goodwill, healing, hope, then I have contributed to healing.

    I grieve for the families of the victims and most especially for Jared, for behind his seemingly smug smile is certainly atrocity beyond comprehension and he deserves all of our love to heal. Pain gets our attention so we can focus on what is most important to us. Let’s use this pain to propel us toward being awake to the power we each have to extend kindness and compassion and yes, not ignore the warning signs along the way!

  11. 1. Using a nationwide sample, Martinez showed that merely “labeling” a person as suffering from a chronic mental illness led people to think of that person as more animalistic: without the capacity for reason, control, or compassion.

    2. The “automatic” association of mental illness with violence

    Our language betrays us:
    1. “Labeling?” Respectfully: “diagnosing.”
    2.”Automatically? ” It is a trained response.

    Harold A. Maio, retired mental health editor

  12. Might be useful to do a historical review of mental health policy in California. We used to have hospitals for the mentally ill. Then we had the Lantermann/Petris/Short Act that was supposed to release patients to mental health facilities in local communities. However, the local facilities did not appear. Left folks with mental disabilities to wander the streets. Any disruption was left to the police to handle. UCB itself was hard pressed to come up with a policy to handle mental health issues on campus. The Psych Dept clinical staff urged police intervention when perceived psychotic individuals were found walking the halls. Look to your own milieu, professor

    • Cynthia’s comment, along with posts that Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton and many others have made, demand responses from UC Powers That Be, especially in these times of out of control threats to the human race.

      Sadly, UC has gone full circle since I was there in the 60s and civil rights demonstrations were commonplace, but we now appear to live in a new age where generations who did not have to fight for civil rights don’t appreciate what was fought for and won in the 60s and 70s with lives and careers being risked, destroyed and/or lost in the process.

      I was overjoyed when I ran across Berkeley Blog and thought the blog would attract the kind of people who were activists to make the right things happen with a sense of urgency in these increasingly perilous times of return to hatreds of all kinds in addition to the hideous perils of Global Warming. I wanted to use the Berkeley Blog to communicate with people, such as Berkeley scholars once again who actually want to solve problems.

      What I have come to realize is that Berkeley Blog attracts far too many who want to talk about problems, but far too few who are willing to make solutions happen, maybe because too many are concerned about punishment by the Ivory Tower aristocracy.

      Considering the hellacious tragedy of last Saturday, and far too many other out of control human tragedies throughout America and the world today, maybe we could make a new beginning by solving the problem that Ms. Vogel’s documents, not only at Berkeley but throughout what was the greatest nation in history after WWII.

  13. “The Arizona shootings and the mental illness-violence link” are one more proof that we are losing the battle of evolution to achieve the supremacy of our prefrontal cortex over our amygdala.

    Our political and intellectual Powers That Be instead revert to dominant cultural values such as marginalization, denial and then censorship in order to protect their aristocracy from “Them” who are the rest of us mere mortals.

    Rodolfo, I can only hope that those who are experts in the brain like you can do better than experts in past generations to teach us how to protect us from ourselves for the sake of survival and quality of life for future generations.

  14. Thank you for another challenging post Rodolfo. One has to wonder if the entire human race has a mental illness-violence failure mode wired into our brains. The fact is that in this newest millennium we continue to subject ourselves to never-ending wars and atrocities that make it look like the human race cannot possibly protect itself from extinction for even one more century.

    We must examine the question, is the Arizona shooting one more in a never-ending series of horrific acts of human violence that prove the world’s political and intellectual leaders are totally unable to protect the human race?

    In 1945 the United Nations was created to produce the world’s best political and intellectual solutions to eliminate the possibility of any more WWII type holocausts. But the most inconvenient truths are that today the UN has not only failed to even come close to achieving Peace on Earth, they are also failing to prevent global warming from making earth uninhabitable in addition.

    Another evolving consequence of our political and intellectual failures is that we are also faced with a most disturbing fact of life in California where our era of civil rights achievements, which began in the 60s at the same time that Berkeley students were fighting for Free Speech at Berkeley, now appears to be ending. A new Foundation for Individual Rights in Education study has exposed yet another most disturbing truth, as reported by California Watch in their report “Which colleges restrict free speech?” on January 6, 2011 by Erica Perez.

    If we cannot protect our children from horrific acts of violence and climate changes due to never-ending failures in political and intellectual leadership, and we are now failing to protect our civil rights, how can there be any hope for our survival?

  15. mental illness is exploding in the US, the country on earth with the most demented people. broken families everywhere due to layoffs=broken people. it’s also great opportunity for many: for profit prisons, pharmas, psy doctors, etc. plus its a tool to keep a lid on the average populace, if you are living in a destabilized society, you don’t have the time to challenge or compete with those that are ruling in their fortresses.

  16. I’m a layperson who has been interested for a long time in people’s personal responses to others with mental illness. I’ve noticed, and observed in myself at times, a very strong and uncomfortable reaction, at least at first, when faced with a person who suddenly appears to have behavior & thinking that is really unexpected, strange & incomprehensible. When someone who otherwise looks thoroughly normal suddenly seems way “off”, even if they are not threatening, it can feel rather creepy & at least a bit frightening. I don’t think it’s necessarily a concern that the person might be violent, though certainly that could be true in some cases. The main reactions I’ve seen are either trying to MAKE that person be normal (by acting as though they are, and/or repeatedly insisting that they be, for instance) or getting away from them and shutting them out. It’s almost a fight or flight response to a threat, and I imagine it includes that “sense of danger” you mention. The whole thing is almost always very uncomfortable, and often includes confusion and angry frustration on both sides. Being curious about what’s going on, and trying to help the person (on their wavelength, somehow) who is clearly in need of some kind of assistance, is perhaps the least likely first reaction. It’s something I’ve had to learn again & again over the years, because it’s really very difficult.
    I’m interested to know if you think this is more a learned response that can be changed over time, like prejudice, or if it’s a very basic human reaction to something we just can’t understand in the moment. It doesn’t feel like the former to me, but I suppose people with serious prejudices might feel that way too. I think there’s something important about the latter though. That weird nervous feeling can’t only be about wrong assumptions we’re making. I think there is something more going on, and I suspect that it would help us to work on having a more constructive primary reaction if we knew more about what that instant response is about to begin with.

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