Mental Illness / Media and Mass Shootings

This is a long article: Go to:

U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institute of Health

Mental Illness, Mass Shootings, and the Politics of American Firearms

Jonathan M. Metzl, MD, PhD and Kenneth T. MacLeish, PhD

Jonathan M. Metzl is with the Center for Medicine, Health, and Society and the Departments of Sociology and Psychiatry, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN. Kenneth T. MacLeish is with the Center for Medicine, Health, and Society and the Department of Anthropology, Vanderbilt University.

Only in the 1960s and 1970s did US society begin to link schizophrenia with violence and guns. Psychiatric journals suddenly described patients whose illness was marked by criminality and aggression. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) most-wanted lists in leading newspapers described gun-toting “schizophrenic killers” on the loose,76 and Hollywood films similarly showed angry schizophrenics who rioted and attacked.77

Historical analysis14,78 suggests that this transformation resulted, not from increasingly violent actions perpetuated by “the mentally ill,” but from diagnostic frame shifts that incorporated violent behavior into official psychiatric definitions of mental illness. Before the 1960s, official psychiatric discourse defined schizophrenia as a psychological “reaction” to a splitting of the basic functions of personality. Descriptors emphasized the generally calm nature of such persons in ways that encouraged associations with poets or middle-class housewives.79 But in 1968, the second edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)80 recast paranoid schizophrenia as a condition of “hostility,” “aggression,” and projected anger, and included text explaining that, “the patient’s attitude is frequently hostile and aggressive, and his behavior tends to be consistent with his delusions.”80(p34-36)

A somewhat similar story can be told about posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), another illness frequently associated with gun violence.15 From the mid-19th century though World War II, military leaders and doctors assumed that combat-related stress afflicted neurotic or cowardly soldiers. In the wake of the Vietnam War, the DSM-III recast PTSD as a normal mind’s response to exceptional events. Yet even as the image of the traumatized soldier evolved from sick and cowardly to sympathetic victim, PTSD increasingly became associated with violent behavior in the public imagination, and the stereotype of the “crazy vet” emerged as a result. In the present day, even news coverage drawing attention to veterans’ suffering frequently makes its point by linking posttraumatic stress with violent crime, despite the paucity of data linking PTSD diagnosis with violence and criminality.38,81

Evolutions such as these not only imbued the mentally ill with an imagined potential for violence, but also encouraged psychiatrists and the general public to define violent acts as symptomatic of mental illness. As the following section suggests,

the diagnostic evolution of schizophrenia additionally positioned psychiatric discourse as authoritative, not just on clinical “conditions” linking guns with mental illness, but on political, social, and racial ones as well.

WOW! A dangerous granting of authority to psychiatrists, (and indeed psychology and the social sciences) and further evidence that the “caring, fixing, helping” industry has taken on vast power to define individual “destinies” since the 1960s. Most Americans have no awareness that this shift in dominant authority has occurred and how negatively this philosophy of pan-human dysfunction has eroded the American quality of life.


Whatever behavior is disapproved, becomes a ‘symptom’ of mental illness. That symptom can be attached to “acting black” or any other chosen origin of behavior.

Social arrogance? In the 1960-70s Black activism was promoted as 'mental illness" which could be "treated" with medication - Haldol.

Psychiatric racism: In the 1960-70s Black activism was promoted as a mental illness, which could be controlled by the application of Haldol.

In a 1969 essay titled “The Protest Psychosis,” psychiatrists postulated that the growing racial disharmony in the US at the height of the Civil Rights Movement was a  manifestation of psychotic behaviors and delusions afflicting America’s black lower class. “Paranoid delusions that one is being constantly victimized” resulted in black male anger and misplaced desire to overthrow the establishment.



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