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The toughest state “mental health law” in the USA couldn’t prevent a tragedy

In Arizona, of all things, “disability” has been legislated a committable offense, but still legislating “disability” a committable offense was not enough to prevent the tragedy that occurred in Tucson. An article in Psychiatric News, Tucson Tragedy Reignites Long Standing Controversies, examines the law and some the what-if’s surrounding the case.

Arizona law is unusual in that it allows a fourth criterion to the three typically used for involuntary civil commitment in most states. The statute lists being a danger to self or to others or being “gravely disabled” (unable to care for oneself) as grounds for commitment. The state also allows commitment for the “persistently or acutely disabled,” a term that covers those with a severe mental disorder along with impaired judgment and capacity to understand or comply with treatment options.

I imagine any leap to judgment by a group of experts could have anyone among the majority of people in that state locked up for being “acutely disabled” if they wanted to do so. A unacknowledged problem here is that locking up people for the relatively victimless crime of being “unable to care for oneself” requires a value judgment, and this is at a far remove from locking people up because of their violent behavior, or any real threat that might be posed to the safety of the community at large.

I hope someday somebody challenges this law, and that such a challenge can make it all the way up to the Supreme Court of the United States because, frankly, I think a law of this sort is clearly unconstitutional.

“Mental illness” is not the problem, violence is the problem. People labeled “mentally ill” are less likely to be the perpetuaters of violent crime than people in general. As an article in Palladium-Item, Mentally ill not usually violent, explains:

Those diagnosed with mental illnesses are no more violent than the general public. Data from Duke University has shown that just 7 percent of people with schizophrenia commit a violent act, including shoving or pushing, annually, while 10 percent of men between the ages of 18 and 24 commit such acts each year. Similarly, studies have shown that a person is three times more likely to be killed by a lightning strike than a stranger with schizophrenia.

Further, this article goes onto say:

If Loughner is found to have a mental illness, he will be an exception in this population and not the rule. In fact, research shows that those with mental illnesses are 2.5 times more likely to be the victims of violent acts than the instigators.

Obviously enacting laws making it easier to lock up people for alleged “mental illnesses” because of fears of violence are misdirected. Violent behavior and threats of violence should be dealt with harshly, but attributing such violence to any “mental illness” is far fetched.

7 Responses

  1. It was laws like this, that, in the past, men used to have their wives committed. As “back in the day” most women were not employed outside the home, their husbands could say that she “is unable to care for herself”.

    • Psychiatry has played a part in the oppression of women. Men have used laws to have their wives committed, and they still use laws to get their wives committed. I have noted, and mentioned before, how polygamous Mormon sects have used the mental health system to control unsubmissive and rebellious women. If this religion can use hospitalization in such a fashion, you know other male dominated institutions will do the same. Many “mental illness” labels are given primarily to women. There are more women being mistreated by psychiatry than men. Women are more likely to be electroshocked than men as well. Women are raped in psychiatric facilities, and then they have no one to run to who will take anything they say seriously. The courts blame them for such incidents by virtue of their psychiatric histories, too. I worry about the power of the system that women face today. It is so powerful, in fact, that I can well imagine a perfectly healthy women, losing her good health, after people convince her of her “sickness”. It happens, and then you’ve a downward “spiral” if you want to call it that. She can fight back, or she can let the system destroy her if she doesn’t fight back. It is often important, given the depths of such oppression, to find the support of other women for women who face this kind of a struggle.

      • Thank you for your thoughtful reply. In any mental health clinic or hospital setting, there are a disproportionately large number of women. When I spoke of the gurneys in the hallway at the University of Michigan inpatient Psychiatric Unit awaiting ECT, there were rarely any men. Most were women over the age of 50. You are right. Women are better off seeking the support of other women rather than allowing themselves to be sucked up into the mental health system. In Ann Arbor, we are lucky to have a very active Women’s Center, who help support these and other women in need.

  2. “If Loughner is found to have a mental illness”
    What kind of statement is that? Of course he will be found to have a mental illness.
    What ever the psychiatrist is looking for, he/she will find the symptoms. Or not find the symptoms.

    From wikipedia The non-existent impostor experiment

    For this experiment, Rosenhan used a well-known research and teaching hospital, whose staff had heard of the results of the initial study but claimed that similar errors could not be made at their institution. Rosenhan arranged with them that during a three month period, one or more pseudopatients would attempt to gain admission and the staff would rate every incoming patient as to the likelihood they were an impostor. Out of 193 patients, 41 were considered to be impostors and a further 42 were considered suspect. In reality, Rosenhan had sent no pseudopatients and all patients suspected as impostors by the hospital staff were ordinary patients.

    • Madness is like modern art, everybody has it even though only a select few have been caught.

      If Loughner had received a schizophrenic label, paraniod or otherwise, as some psychiatrists, politicians, and mental health professionals have claimed, he would be held in a psychiatric facility until he was deemed fit to stand trial. I haven’t heard anybody talking about holding him in a psychiatric facility, therefore, talk of his “mental illness” is bunk. His legal team though is being provided with the defense to save his life, and I’ve got a feeling it will probably work.

      Thanks, Mark, for letting people know about the Rosenhan experiment. You can read David Rosenhan’s original account of the study , On Being Sane In Insane Places, curtesy of psychrights.org by clicking the hyperlink below.


  3. I agree with you that violence, rather than mental illness, is the problem in the Tucson tragedy. By the way, a similar law to the one in Arizona but in the Netherlands was struck down by the Europenan Court of Human Rights in 1984. I hope the same happens with the Arizona law in SCOTUS f anyone ever challenges it.

    • Sooner or later, it’s bound to happen, and hardly only in Arizona. Legislators are using legislation in other states as an excuse to change the legislation in their own state for the worse. For the worse, I say, because they’re legislating against the civil liberties to which citizens are supposedly entitled by birth. People who are facing civil commitment are 1. not necessarily ‘insane’; and 2. members of the general public who should have the same rights as other members of the public. Sometimes that point seems to be missed when laws are being enacted to protect the general public from people labeled with “mental illness”. People recover from the difficulties they face in life, and this or that “mental illness” label can be cut and discarded.

      Our basic freedoms are under attack through this legislation. With freedom goes responsibility, and when one is threatened, so is the other.

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