Fixes to violence should respect mental illness

The 1970s brought laws giving people struggling with mental illness the right to refuse treatment, unless they appear a threat to others or themselves. Such laws were implemented in reaction to an era where people were being institutionalized for feeling anxious or hormonal.

Such laws still stand in Minnesota. This policy, coupled with Minnesota’s gun laws, leaves open the possibility that a person can be ill, yet show no signs of violent intent and refuse treatment, while building up stockpiles of weaponry for intended use.

This is exactly what happened this past September in Minneapolis. Andrew Engeldinger unleashed a shooting spree at his workplace, resulting in the death of many, including himself. This tragic outburst is among several that have surfaced in the past few years, including the Colorado Batman shootings and the shooting of Norwegian youth.

One fair reaction to this tragic trend is to point to the gaps in our mental health policies. The Associated Press highlighted this issue in an Oct. 2 article, “Shootings expose cracks in U.S. mental health system.” Beginning with a discussion of the particular struggles of Engeldinger, the article moves toward a more general argument about the importance of consistent treatment for all persons struggling with mental illness and advocates for reform of Minnesota’s policies. The piece ends with a glorification of mental illness medication, citing examples of persons who either became violent or relapsed into their worst symptoms after failing to take their medication consistently.

The argument in the article rests on the premise that though persons with mental illness may not show signs of violence, they may either become violent if left untreated or already harbor violent intentions in secret. Therefore, in order to prevent violent outbursts like shooting sprees that tend to be committed by mentally ill persons, family and friends should be able to commit their resistant mentally ill loved ones to treatment.

The implications of this type of argument make me cringe. This sort of preemptive approach could also be extended to crimes given the demographics of felons, for example. It would read like this: “Though black American young persons may not commit crimes, they may either become criminals or already harbor criminal intent. Therefore, in order to prevent crimes that tend to be committed by black American youths, cops should be allowed to pick them up against their will and take them to jail.” Granted, imprisonment is different from mental illness treatment. But aren’t they both, in a way, supposed to “fix” people who don’t behave the way society wants them to?

I want to look at the many important variables involved in the formula that leads us to this tragic trend of shooting sprees by people struggling with mental illness.

Despite the way that our culture glorifies and overuses medications to address mental illness, using such drugs intrinsically involves risk. Finding the right prescription and dosage to meet an individual’s particular needs is a tenuous and even dangerous process of trial and error, sometimes causing violent thoughts where there were none previously. The stigma attached to needing medical help for mental struggles, along with fear of such chemical treatment, could be a major deterrent for people struggling from mental illness to seek help.

Yes, the protection of the rights of mentally ill people to refuse treatment comes at a cost. The protection of the rights of Americans to own firearms also comes at a cost. The fact that such weapons are so easily available to people, mentally ill or not, is a major part of the formula. Gun violence pervades our culture and reminds us of the ease with which we can destroy life. This, coupled with the ease of acquiring weapons, is a destructive environment for humans who experience the “normal” emotional highs and lows, let alone people who experience prolonged emotional extremes.

As we respond to horrible acts committed by fellow humans that shake our foundations in the way that these shooting sprees do, it’s too easy to discuss strategies for controlling wrongdoers. I’m undecided on whether nature or nurture determines a person’s actions, but I have a hunch that it’s a combination. I assert that a more fruitful and respectful strategy is to also discuss how we can control our environment to make the world in which we operate one that brings out the best behavior in us.

Emelia Carroll ’13 is from Minneapolis, Minn. She majors in philosophy.

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