Monday, January 14, 2013

Mental Health And Violence Prevention: The Creepiness Factor

There's been a lot of talk these days about improving or paying attention to mental health.  Some of that talk has been happening in the context of preventing violence.  Some of that talk seems to suggest that if perpetrators of violence had had their mental health issues treated properly, the violence could have been prevented.

Some of these things are in the "yes, obviously" category.  Yes, obviously, people should have access to treatment for mental health.  Obviously mental health issues are just as real and serious as other health issues.  Obviously mental health and unhappiness should not be stigmatized.

But I think the way the talk goes in the violence prevention debate goes way beyond the "yes, obviously" category, and goes well into the "creepy" category. 

First of all, if you're talking about relying primarily on mental health treatment to prevent violence, you're talking about going way beyond improved "access" to mental health resources.  You're going to need screenings; you're going to need to be getting in people's faces with tests they do not want; you're going to need surveillance and punishments and all kinds of crazy Panopticon shit.

Sometimes you hear people say that those in certain roles, like teachers, should be attentive to finding people with mental health issues and should taking action.  Have these people been in a classroom?

I mean, first of all, we must be talking about something more than just saying "hey, how are things, if you want to talk, come by my office hours," because what about the people who don't feel like talking because they already have a plan, and the plan is violent?  No, what we're talking about must be a form of "turning someone in," as in alerting some official person, "hey, that person has a problem and needs help, whether they want it or not."

That's bad enough in itself.  In our modern world where your every move is tracked, are you really going to risk being wrong about something like that and screwing up some poor young person's life?

But what's even worse is when you consider what the "signs" are supposed to be.  What are those signs, exactly?  Seeming stressed out, or lonely, or sad?  Being anti-social?  Acting weird?

I got news for you:  all young people are stressed out, lonely, sad, anti-social, and weird some of the time.  Yes, some young people are more stressed out, lonely, sad, anti-social, and weird than others.  And you know what?  That is not a crime.  Last I heard, part of living in a free society is the right to be sad and weird and anti-social.  And to do it without a bunch of people getting in your face about it and demanding you must be "mentally ill" and that you have to get help.

When it's proposed that mental health screening would allow for a world in which a lot of people are armed but few people get shot, I'm always amazed at what the implications are for the idea of being "mentally healthy."  I mean, that seems to me a high bar.  Do these people think it's a sign of illness that in certain situations, under particular stresses, people snap and make bad decisions, decisions they'll regret?  Geez, people -- that's not a sign of being ill; it's a sign of being human.

You put it all together, you get something like this:  anyone who even seems like they might ever, momentarily, not behave in a completely rational way, should be picked out by some responsible figure like a teacher and forced to undergo treatment until their peculiarities are completed beaten out of them.

How creepy is that?  And we haven't even touched on the various difficulties of what our mental health establishment thinks is "healthy," or its poor track record at pathologizing completely normal kinds of behavior, like homosexuality.

Sorry.  Super creepy.


Anonymous said...

We also see this call for increased screening/surveillance/regulation in response to various crises in public trust (e.g., in the domain of health care - in response to doctors who harm patients). Onora O'Neill has argued that the move to ever greater restrictions and screenings doesn't necessarily solve the problem of public trust - it may hamper the professional in question without making the public any safer. Not sure I agree with this (I think medical doctors should be more closely regulated) - but in the case of the mental health argument, I agree that the suggestion that we all be vigilant about identifying non-mentally healthy people is a bit creepy. Couldn't we still encourage more resources to be directed to community mental health initiatives that could reach a wider group, though?

Patricia Marino said...

Hi Anonymous, interesting to see the broader context -- I didn't know about that particular O'Neill work.

More resources, sure -- especially for those who want and seek out the care in question!