Mental illness, civility, and violence

Buried in yesterday’s huge volume of news stories on the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords, I came across an article that interviewed several experts who specialize in mental illness:

Details about Mr. Loughner are still emerging, and only an examining doctor will be able to make a definitive diagnosis. But the writings and comments attributed to him point strongly to the kind of delusional thinking that is common in schizophrenia.

“I’d say the chances are 99 percent that he has schizophrenia,” said Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, the founder of the Treatment Advocacy Center in ARlington, Va., which advocates stronger laws to require treatment for people with mental illnesses. “He was together enough to take courses, and people with untreated schizophrenia can function very well for periods. But when you see these rambling, incoherent writings and comments, there is almost no other disorder where this is a prominent symptom.”

Many of Mr. Loughner’s reported comments — about currency and government — also suggest a growing paranoia….

“Red Flags at a College, but Tied Hands,” By Benedict Carey, New York Times, 11 January 2011, pr. A18.

Did the current political climate and heated partisan rhetoric have any effect on Loughner? The experts interviewed by the New York Times disagreed. One expert said it was possible that a psychosis could pick up on “the grand themes of the day,” while Dr. Torrey argued that “It’s not political thinking, it’s psychotic thinking.”

Either way, I think that’s not what’s important. Quite a few people have been arguing that various politicians who use inflamatory rhetoric can create a climate that could incite people like Loughner to violence, but I’m not convinced that’s a productive argument to be having right now. From my perch on the far left of the American political spectrum, I’d have to say that the political rhetoric among both liberals and conservatives has been, and continues to be, uncivil, nasty, threatening, and/or mean-spirited. It’s gotten to the point where I feel like I’m in a preschool classroom filled with children who are misbehaving, and who all need a good, long time out.

I have no interest in blaming conservative politicians for Loughner’s behavior, becuase I believe we should be having two other far more productive conversations right now. The first productive conversation we should be having is how we as a society deal with people who have serious mental illness. Speaking as someone who has had relatives with serious mental illness, our society needs to talk more openly about what mental illnesses look like, who has them, and how to deal with them. The second productive conversation we should be having is how we can be a more civil society. Whether or not the inflammatory rhetoric used by today’s politicians did or didn’t incite Loughner to violence, we all need to stop acting like misbehaving preschool children, and start treating all persons the way we ourselves would like to be treated.

You could sum it all up quite simply — it’s all about the Golden Rule.

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