A Lunatic’s Response to Wayne LaPierre

8 Feb

I hate Wayne LaPierre.

It isn’t hard to do. I am a screaming, pinko liberal. I was raised by hippie activist parents who participated in the grape boycott and instilled in my four-year-old ethos their conviction that Ronald Reagan was the devil. In college, I attended numerous rallies protesting the Iraq War. I rejoiced in Sarah Palin’s tears during John McCain’s 2008 concession speech. Guess how I feel about gun control?

But that’s not why I really hate Wayne Lapierre. Yes, his black-and-white fallacies and reach-around relationship with the gun industry turn my progressive stomach. But what sets my teeth on edge, what invokes my absolute white-hot loathing of this paranoid pasty-faced ghoul, is something far more personal: his demonization of people with mental illness.

Sane folk may not have noticed the pernicious nature of his comments regarding mental illness, or if they did, they briefly ridiculed them before moving on to deconstruct the plethora of other bizarre things he said in the weeks following the Newtown massacre. But however ludicrous his statements were, I couldn’t laugh them off.

Some choice quotes on the subject of mental illness from Wayne Lapierre:

From his statement to the press a week after the shooting in Newtown CT:

“The truth is that our society is populated by an unknown number of genuine monsters — people so deranged, so evil, so possessed by voices and driven by demons that no sane person can possibly ever comprehend them.”

From his interview on Meet the Press, December 23, 2012:

“You can’t legislate morality. Legislation works on the sane. Legislation works on the law abiding.”

“We have a mental health system in this country that has completely and totally collapsed. We have no national database of these lunatics.”

“23 states are still putting only a small number of records into the system and a lot of states are putting none. So when they go through the National Instant Check System and they go to try to screen out one of those lunatics, the records are not even in the system.”

“I talked to a police officer the other day. He said, ‘Wayne,’ he said, ‘let me tell you this. Every police officer walking the street knows a lunatic that’s out there, some mentally disturbed person that ought to be in an institution, is out walking the street because they dealt with the institutional side. They didn’t want mentally ill in institutions. So they put them all back on the streets. And then nobody thought what happens when you put all these mentally ill people back on the streets, and what happens when they start taking their medicine.'”

“We have a completely cracked mentally ill system that’s got these monsters walking the streets.”

I don’t have any more quotes because at this point in the interview I yelled something offensive and threw my computer across the room, which was probably not the most constructive response: So I’m a monster, huh? A dangerous lunatic, you say? I’ll show you how wrong you are by screaming obscenities and hurling my laptop at the wall! (I’m being hyperbolic; at the last second, I modified my aim, throwing it onto the couch instead. See? Mentally ill people can make rational decisions.)

I'm not posting video because I don't want to prove him right by flying into a psychotic rage

I’m not posting video because I don’t want to prove him right by flying into a psychotic rage.

Which brings us to the issue of stigma.

Stigma is that deleterious dyad of fear and hatred of people with mental illness espoused by individuals and institutions. Stigma cuts across boundaries of race and class. It is systemic. It is internal. It is endemic to the status quo.

There are numerous reasons for stigma. Ignorance is definitely a major player–if the only context you have is Hannibal Lector and that homeless guy downtown who argues with stop signs, you aren’t likely to feel comfortable in close proximity to people diagnosed  as mentally ill.

But I suspect that deep down, one of the driving forces of stigma is the need to identify as a normal, sane person. Because here’s the thing: insane people are not that much different than you.

The average age for an onset of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder is between eighteen and twenty-five, but it’s not unheard of for it to develop later in life. I know people who were diagnosed in their forties and fifties. Clinical depression and PTSD don’t have statutes of limitations. Some misfiring synapses, some trauma-inducing misfortune, and presto! Insanity. That homeless guy yelling at the stop sign? With the right medication and treatment plan, a period of stable rehabilitation, and a clean change of clothes, he’d blend right in with the rest of you. And if you start suffering from overwhelming auditory hallucinations, you’d better pray you can access those resources or you might end up just like him.

I knew someone who was shot to death by the police while he was in the midst of a schizophrenic episode. He developed it in his late twenties. When I met him five years earlier, he was the dependable, level-headed guy in the group who kept his drunk friends in line when they got too rowdy at the bar.

One of my favorite film quotes is from Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight:

“Madness, as you know, is like gravity. All it takes is a little push.”

Not the best rebuttal of stigma

Perhaps not the best example to use when rebutting stigma

So when the head of the most powerful lobbying group in Washington starts railing against people with mental illness, I take notice. I am concerned. In “liberal candy land” (I stole that from an argument with a Ron Paul supporter), we can easily laugh him off. But millions of people listen to this guy. Politicians listen to him. And the vile, hateful things spewing out of his mouth become talking points disseminated by countless media outlets.

Advocacy groups for the mentally ill issued statements in response to LaPierre’s claims, but they didn’t receive a lot of attention. Maybe it’s because advocacy groups for the mentally ill have to be careful to always maintain a calm, measured tone, lest people think they’re mad. Sane folks like Wayne LaPierre can sound as crazy as they want, and crazy lasts longer in the news cycle.

The truth about the relationship between violence and mental illness is not simple. First and foremost, it needs to be acknowledged that the category of “mental illness” is an umbrella term with a mind-boggling variety of disorders, all of which exist on a spectrum from mild to severe, many of which manifest to different extremes throughout the sufferer’s life. My aunt’s social anxiety looks very different from my bipolar disorder, but they’re both classified as mental illness; similarly, the undiagnosed version of me is far removed from the functional version who takes her meds, exercises regularly, and gets eight hours of sleep every night.

Next, we all need to be crystal clear about the fact that people with mental illness are MUCH more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of it. Studies have produced slightly different statistics on likelihood, but they’ve all found that people with mental illness are exponentially more at risk for being the victims of violence. The most cited study I found was one published by the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2005. It concluded that people suffering from severe mental illness were eleven times more likely to be victims of violence than the general population, and that depending on the kind of violence, they could be up to 23 times more likely. Remember that bit in this blog’s “About” page about the comorbidity of bipolar disorder and PTSD? Here’s a link to the abstract:

http://archpsyc.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=208861

Now that that’s settled: yes, some people with mental illness do commit acts of violence. There’s no point in denying that. In searching for the answer to that uncomfortable question of whether the mentally ill are more violent than the rest of the population, I stumbled upon this excellent response from Mental Illness Policy Org, a non-profit think tank and info resource for media and government:

“If you are talking about the 40-50% of Americans who may have a ‘diagnosable mental disorder,’ then ‘no’, the mentally ill are not more violent than others. If you are talking about the 5% of Americans with the most serious mental illnesses–primarily schizophrenia and treatment-resistant bipolar disorder, then ‘no’, the mentally ill are not more violent than others.

If you are talking about members of the 5% group who go off treatment that has previously prevented them from being psychotic, hospitalized, or violent, then ‘yes’ the mentally ill are more violent than others. This higher than normal rate of violence increases even more when these groups abuse substances. When people ask, ‘Are the mentally ill more violent,’ they are usually asking about this group, the most seriously mentally ill.”

Accusing all people with mental illness of being violent is akin to accusing all homosexuals of being pedophiles: a small percent of them are, but the vast majority of offenders are–guess what? Members of the dominant group. This makes many members of the dominant group uncomfortable, so they embrace stigma, create a big scary Other, and demonize the hell out of it.

Wayne LaPierre knows this, and he exploits it. And as long as he keeps at it, and as long as people keep listening, I have no intention of letting my guard down.

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