connecting-mental-illness-violence-dataLast night, a poorly researched piece by Steve Kroft appeared on the television news program, 60 Minutes. I say “poorly researched” because it took me all of five minutes to find problems in what some of those interviewed on the program said. While truthy, it wasn’t exactly the whole truth.

The core problem this program displayed is making a post hoc logical fallacy of connecting two seemingly-related things and suggesting a causal relationship exists. Because some of the people who commit mass killings have mental health issues, this is a sign of “a failed mental health system that’s prohibited from intervening until a judge determines that someone presents an “imminent danger to themself or others.”” The two may have little to do with each other (and in fact, according to real research, don’t).

No, the sign your mental health system has failed is when you’re locking up tens of thousands of people with serious mental illness in prison for petty crimes, rather than simply treating them in less restrictive settings.

Or worse yet, the suggestion that people with mental illness are simply more prone to violence: “It’s becoming harder and harder to ignore the fact that the majority of the people pulling the triggers have turned out to be severely mentally ill — not in control of their faculties — and not receiving treatment.”

To make that kind of statement, someone at 60 Minutes — or someone they’re interviewing — has to have done an actual study on the hundreds of mass shootings in the U.S. over the past three decades and actually looked at all the shooters’ health records. (Because, contrary to what the media or common wisdom would have you believe, mass shootings remain relatively flat across all three decades — they are not on the rise.)

Of course, nobody’s yet done such a study (or at least none that 60 Minutes cited, and none that I could find). Which means that what you get is media hyperbole masquerading as science or data.

Or maybe 60 Minutes just took “famous psychiatrist” E. Fuller Torrey’s word for it:

Dr. Torrey: Well, they’re directly related. About half of these mass killings are being done by people with severe mental illness, mostly schizophrenia. And if they were being treated, they would’ve been preventable.

Now, nowhere could I find Torrey having authored such a study either. I think he just looked at some of the higher-profile cases, read some media accounts, and came to that conclusion. And apparently there isn’t a skeptical staffer over at 60 Minutes who thought, “Hey, if he’s citing a statistic like that, we need a reference or something…”

But it gets worse… Torrey suggests that if only these killers had the benefits of being touched by our mental health system, they could’ve been stopped. Yet some of the killers were in touch with mental health professionals, the police, and others. At least one of the killers was even a respected mental health professional.

Because then Steve Kroft goes on to say things like, “And before James Holmes dressed up as the Joker and shot 70 people in a movie theater, campus police at the University of Colorado had been warned that he was potentially violent.” Umm, isn’t that the same James Holmes who had just seen a psychiatrist a few weeks before the shooting, and from all accounts, was in treatment just before? In fact, the psychiatrist was so concerned, she alerted authorities, who then sprung into action and… did absolutely nothing.

Or this: “In 2007, Virginia Tech student Seung-Hui Cho was behaving so irrationally that a court ordered him to seek mental health care. The order was never carried out.” Well, since we’ve closed most of the state hospitals, what do you in this case — where a judge ordered treatment? Lock him up in jail and give him prison-based “treatment?”

Which the 60 Minutes’ piece touches upon later on — we lock up the mentally ill in our prisons for petty crimes. And then give them little or no treatment, no reintegration plan, and no hope once they leave. “Most of them will be here for several days to several months, then released back on the street with a packet of pills and no plan. Sheriff Dart says it’s become a huge public safety issue.”

E. Fuller Torrey, “Famous Psychiatrist”

“Dr. Torrey is one of the most famous psychiatrists in the country…” Nice reporting there, but it sounds more like something from a press release than something belonging in a 60 Minutes’ news piece.

What they leave out about E. Fuller Torry is interesting, however. E. Fuller Torrey is a big advocate for court-mandated outpatient treatment1 (it’s what the organization he runs, the Treatment Advocacy Center, does). Which is, you know, sort of a conflict of interest to be talking about this when you have skin in the game — without at the very least mentioning it.

The reason I mention it is because it suggests an underlying motivation, in my opinion, to some of his comments. If we convince people — through fear and the “truthiness” of the matter — that people with mental illness could be more violent or dangerous than others, then we’ll have an easier time passing our mandated outpatient laws (which, you know, worked so well in the case of Seung-Hui Cho).

A Broken Mental Health System

Fear is not necessarily a reliable motivator, though. As we’ve seen in this case, where lawmakers on both sides of the aisle haven’t exactly been lining up to pledge the billions of dollars it would take to fix our mental health system.

Our mental health system has been broken since the 1980s, when the plan to close down most of the nation’s state hospitals relied on the states (and their short-sighted budgets and stigma- and prejudicial-laden visions) to pick up the slack of what to do with patients who need more care or oversight than outpatient alone can provide.

It’s the same old story, only now with the twist of violence to add to it. We systematically and systemically underfund the health system in the U.S., and this is just one piece of that underfunding. Society is now perfectly fine with locking up the mentally ill who need more help than outpatient can provide in prisons instead of state hospitals.

But it would be ludicrous to suggest that if we “fixed” the broken mental health system, we would cut down on these random acts of violence. Maybe we would, maybe we wouldn’t. But it’s just plain dumb (and perhaps a tad delusional) to try and sell people on this as a reason to fix the system.

Because the last time I checked, scientists, psychologists and even “famous psychiatrists” aren’t fortune tellers and can’t predict the future.

Please, yes, let’s fix the system. But let’s do it because it’s the right thing to do — not because we’re motivated by irrational fear promulgated by “famous psychiatrists” and sloppy journalists.

 

Read the 60 Minutes transcript: Untreated mental illness an imminent danger?

Footnotes:

  1. And if you fail to comply with such treatment, into prison you go. []

 


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    Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Sep 2013
    Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.

APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2013). 60 Minutes: Connecting Mental Illness to Violence with Little Data, Facts. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 21, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2013/09/30/60-minutes-connecting-mental-illness-to-violence-with-little-data-facts/

 

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