Thursday, August 11, 2016

Mental Health, Guns, Trump

Mental illness is in the news these days, and I am going to jump in with both feet.

Here's something: it is kind of a cliche to argue that mentally ill people should be restricted from buying guns.

It makes sense, doesn't it? Mentally ill people with guns are bound to be more dangerous than rational Americans like you and me with guns. We only shoot people who deserve it, but crazy people will shoot just about anybody.

The proposal raises two questions to my mind. The easy one first.

The criteria for "mental illness" are vague and differ from state to state. What about people who are troubled and go to a counselor or shrink to discuss their problems? The therapist may be expected to put down a diagnosis so they can bill the insurance company, or maybe they really do need some help or some meds. And maybe they get labeled bipolar or borderline or something, ADHD, depressed -- that would be a lot of people. Maybe they need a week or two of recovery in a mental hospital. Man, that would not be fair, taking a worried man's guns from him like that. I would hate to be the politician who says where they will draw the line.

So that is the first thing that would make it hard to implement a law to keep mentally ill folk from buying guns. It could sweep up a lot of people who are all right. The vast majority of people diagnosed with mental illness are not a threat to anyone.

The second problem though is actually the deal-breaker. Imagine a guy who has never gone to a mental health specialist, never been evaluated, he's cheerful and confident and has friends, he has a job and a family and a normal life. He is sure that Obama is using high-altitude jet contrails to control our minds with chemicals. He knows exactly how the gay agenda is working through the public schools to convert our children to homosexuality. Hillary is a criminal. Planned Parenthood is getting rich off abortions. Obama founded ISIS. The government has a plan to make all of us live under Sharia law. Liberal scientists are helping the communist Chinese and undermining America by lying about the weather... you see where I'm going here?

The question has to do with defining the concept of mental illness. A person walking around in a blinding fog of delusion, bordering on hallucination, might be a raving maniac, and they might just be a Republican -- in many cases these are one and the same thing. One thing you don't want to do is to prove to a crazy person that they're right. Easy buddy, it's just Obama coming for your guns.

You might have seen some of the people around the Internet asking if Donald Trump might be mentally unhealthy. I don't think we normally discriminate against mentally ill people running for office -- they are not required to pass a test or anything -- but it is a good question for concerned voters, and there are some analyses online that seem to suggest he qualifies as clinically diagnosable.

Donald Trump as the candidate for President of the United States represents a large number of people who, among other things, really strongly believe in their right to have lots of guns, any type they want. He may be diagnosably nuts, according to the Internet, and from what I've read about what happens at his rallies, I'd say a lot of the people who'd vote for him might be, too.

So oddly, even while some are saying that the world would be safer if we limited mentally ill people's access to weapons, in a very real sense the lunatics are making their move to take over the asylum.

If you are going to suggest a law that restricts access to guns on the basis of mental health, then you must be prepared for massive pushback, because the idea is political. One side of the political spectrum considers a person who relies on scientific facts, logical inference, and empathy to be dangerous and even treasonous. They feel that educated and experienced "elites" need to be locked up, run out of town, mocked and beaten, even killed, and uneducated white people who think from the gut and hear God speaking to them personally should have military grade weapons behind every door of their house, in their car, and in a holster on their hip.

It looks like about forty percent of Americans are happy to get in step behind Trump. Even if it is not enough to win an election, that is a lot of people. There is nothing he can say that is so crazy that this core group of followers will back away from him. In fact, the crazier he is the more they like him.

ThinkProgress, bless their heart, takes another view of this, which I suppose is how liberals are supposed to think about it. Their view is that it's wrong to call Trump and his followers mentally ill, because it is not respectful of mentally ill people. They say:
The media has a responsibility to consider how to avoid stereotypes when covering mental illness, because research shows that mass media affects how we perceive people with mental illness. And unfortunately, mass media often gets it wrong or associates mental illnesses with negative stereotypes, research consistently shows.
This is an argument that reifies mental illness and presumes that it is always something that happens to you and has to be treated by a doctor, as if an individual has no participation in the construction of their own thinking. We understand there is a continuum ranging from the psychotic who is not able to take care of himself and has no choice in the matter, to the manipulative individual who takes advantage of people, lies repeatedly, abuses his loved ones, and does not accept responsibility for his or her own actions. Both might be classified by a therapist as mentally ill (and one of them is more dangerous than the other when it comes to owning a gun), but there is some point where society holds a person accountable. You don't say he "suffers from irresponsibility."

Think about the Heaven's Gate group, thirty-nine people who committed suicide in the belief that they would be transported to a space-ship that was flying behind the Hale-Bopp comet in 1997. It is not controversial to say that those people were mentally ill. A group of people had access to facts and chose to believe something bizarre, and a lot of people died. Do you think thirty-nine people all caught the same mental disease at the same time? You have to believe that tragedy could have been diverted by some good solid common sense. A group of people can convince themselves that the most outrageously incorrect statements are facts, and they can validate their conviction through emblematic acts, including suicide, homicide, war and genocide, and other forms of violence.

Someone with disordered thinking, who chooses delusion over objectively verifiable facts, who refuses to accept responsibility for their choices or to tell the truth, someone who reacts with violence and threats -- that person has something seriously wrong with them. We do not need to be so in awe of psychologists that we can't form an opinion ourselves. If it is a social judgment, so be it. The rest of us can see that something is wrong, and we have been very tolerant of disturbed cognition masquerading as a respectable belief system. Now we will have an uphill political struggle if we want to keep guns and government out of the hands of people who are certifiably, dangerously nuts.