A violent reaction to sad news

I’ve written article for Slate about the Arizona shooting and why many are too quick to use “mental illness” as a catch-all explanation for violence.

I suspect we’re going to hear a great deal more about the issue in the coming weeks, and not all of it positive or well-informed.

This article looks at some of the relevant scientific evidence and some of the misconceptions that invariably arise when such tragic circumstances make headlines.

Shortly after Jared Lee Loughner had been identified as the alleged shooter of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, online sleuths turned up pages of rambling text and videos he had created. A wave of amateur diagnoses soon followed, most of which concluded that Loughner was not so much a political extremist as a man suffering from “paranoid schizophrenia.”

For many, the investigation will stop there. No need to explore personal motives, out-of-control grievances or distorted political anger. The mere mention of mental illness is explanation enough. This presumed link between psychiatric disorders and violence has become so entrenched in the public consciousness that the entire weight of the medical evidence is unable to shift it. Severe mental illness, on its own, is not an explanation for violence, but don’t expect to hear that from the media in the coming weeks.


Link to Slate article ‘Crazy Talk’.

16 thoughts on “A violent reaction to sad news”

  1. How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later
    by Philip K. Dick, 1978


    But the problem is a real one, not a mere intellectual game. Because today we live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups—and the electronic hardware exists by which to deliver these pseudo-worlds right into the heads of the reader, the viewer, the listener.

  2. good for you for getting this article out so quickly. Tragedies like this are just made more tragic when they are used to shore up inaccurate stereotypes about mental illness.

  3. “Don’t reach inside your tv speaker there’s a creature that’ll beat ya if ever meet ya”

    I say ya get what ya give that politician was just getting whats been being given call it mental illness last I checked everyone senses paranoid skitsofrantic episodes is a way of waking up

    someone should do an article on the positivities of dealing with skitzo mentalities and any questioners can watch docts on things like “The Secret” or ‘The Law of Attraction’

    Am sorry but it’s only going to be getting worse a system that was built to fall will fall… Plus who dies really?

    Anarchist for life.,

  4. I don’t know, the more I find out about the guy the more he does come off as mentally disturbed. It sickens me more when this kind of behavior is extrapolated to all “anti-government” types.

    Mentally ill or not, I think his motivates and philosophy deserve to be looked at. I certainly don’t think we should just say “chemical imbalance” and forget it. I agree that there are definitely cultural/sociological factors that can contribute to violent behavior, and it’s a very important thing to look at if we want to improve our society.

  5. Thanks for the article, it brings the truth that mental illness is the scapegoat of society and explanation for violence. I’ve worked with the mentally ill and specially schizophrenics for over 12 years and never even witness any act of violence or felt unsafe. I even used to take a large group of them camping regularly (as part of their psychosocial rehab)without any incident. They were actually a lot of fun.

  6. The reactions to this shooting are becoming a bit bizarre. In contrast to Vaughan’s sober admonition not to rush to the “mental illness” conclusion, it appears the public is using the events as quite the political Rorschach test. If we had done the same thing with Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan or Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab we would feel a bit uncomfortable, though, exploring the “personal motives, out-of-control grievances or distorted political anger” as it relates to radical Islam. Uh oh…we should also recognize that disjointed thoughts will not congeal into a “motive” or “political anger” in any meaningful way unless we accept that our own stuff is in there, just as we see puppies and dinosaurs in clouds.

  7. I am reminded of Vaughan’s post on Dec. 10, a review of Paul Kix’s “The Loneliness of the Suicide Bomber” article in the Boston Globe.

    In Vaughan’s review, he states:

    “The Boston Globe has an excellent article on whether suicide bombers are largely motivated by religious fanaticism or whether some might have symptoms of low mood and hopelessness that encourage them to end their lives.”

    The critical word is “or”. In Vaughan’s Slate article, he states that “We’re too quick to use mental illness as an explanation for violence”.

    – Yet Vaughan lauds praise on using mental illness as an explanation for suicide bombers.

    Its pretty clear from Loughner’s Internet ramblings, multiple public disturbances, etc. that he is severely mentally ill. Many people on the left are now trying to exploit this tragedy by linking Loughner’s to enemies on the right. Perhaps I’m mistaken, but I read Vaughan’s Slate article as an attempt to bolster these attacks, to crack open the door for what another author aptly referred to as blood libels.

    Suppose Loughner’s mental illness had nothing to do with his violence. And further suppose he was motivated by “political reasons” to some degree. How exactly would you distinguish the illness from the politics? This is a man who cites both Mein Kampf and the Communist manifesto as favorite books, and keeps a potted plastic skull in a backyard shrine. Yet for reasons of political malice, the pundits are now speculating wildly on how he was influenced by Palin et al. Armchair speculation into Loughner’s political views is deemed a legitimate line of inquiry, but questions about Loughner’s mental state are derided.

    Oh, how the science suits the politics when convenient.

    1. But, but, but…all you’ve done is elaborately beg the question – in the original sense of assuming the answer in the way you state the question. Your assertion is that Palin’s “blood libel” charge is justified, that the suggestion that political motives be examined must be politically motivated. How, then, do we rely on the rest of what you have to say.

      How do we tell where illness stops and motivating factors begin? Certainly not by lining up in partisan factions and insisting that one or the other is primary.

      Tell you what I did, for chuckles and because I have a firm belief in getting the views of people who know more than I do. I asked a shrink – one who has experience with profoundly disturbed people. I asked in a way that I intended not to imply my own view. The answer was that the expression of mental illness is likely to be determined by environmental cues. Nobody ever claimed to have a chip in their head controlling their activity until computer chips were a cultural artifact. Nobody claimed that aliens were controlling their thoughts until the possibility of alien life forms was widely discussed. Taking violent action against a member of a particular party with a gun is made more likely by a culture in which gun violence and violence against political opponents is widely discussed. For the mentally ill and the crank alike. So says the psychiatric pro.

  8. A great article Vaughan. As posted above by kharris, I too subscribe to this view that it’s not simply one or the other, but the interaction of mental illness with cultural and societal forces (including here the media and availability of weapons in the US relative to other jurisdictions), and I’m a psychiatrist as was kharris’ source.

  9. Just to let you know Jared Lee Loughner is mentally ill, he may even have a brain injury in his past. Take a look at some hallmark symptoms of Schizophrenia he clearly demonstrated as far back as high school and come back and tell me what you think. Read and view them here http://wp.me/1iuIe

  10. It’s quite possible that young Jared Loughner was BOTH mentally ill AND he made a reasoned, conscious decision to shoot the congressperson.

    My conclusion is based upon one indisputable fact. Mental health care and the expected living conditions of the mentally ill in the US are pathetic.

    He was presumed to be reasonably intelligent in a very odd way. It wouldn’t take very long to discover that seeking treatment for his mental illness would have low chances of success. With his failure to “act straight” in community college he had no mean$ with which to secure a place in society.

    So he committed suicide by cop; and failed.

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