Like most people, I had an intense reaction to this weekend’s shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and others in Arizona. I was angry and sad and confused and then angry again and then heartbroken when I learned that a 9-year-old girl had been killed. As we learned more about the gunman, 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner, many began speculating on his mental state. Reporters and law enforcement officials said things like he “reportedly suffers from mental illness” (a phrase that adds nothing to the story and doesn’t have much meaning) and used words like “insane” (a legal term not used in any form of diagnosis) to talk about him.
Loughner is clearly a troubled young man who did a horrible, horrible thing. We overuse the word “tragedy” today, but it clearly fits here. Still, any rush to slap a label on whatever brand of mental illness he may or may not be suffering from is rash and thoughtless. If you asked any of the doctors on staff at Menninger to diagnose Loughner from afar, they’d tell you that it was impossible to do and irresponsible to try. Diagnosing mental illness can be exceedingly difficult, especially when many patients receive a variety of diagnoses (sometimes conflicting) over the course of their treatment.
But even if it turns out that Loughner has been living with a mental illness, we as a nation need to be careful about how we characterize him and, by extension, those suffering from a similar disorder. And now we’ve finally come to the point of this blog post.
John Scalzi is one of my favorite authors, in part because his blog, Whatever, is incredibly entertaining. It’s well written, of course, but it’s also insightful, informative and very, very funny. This past Saturday he posted some of his brief, preliminary thoughts on the shooting, and then encouraged his thousands of daily readers to share their own.
On Sunday he posted a follow up in which he discussed various reactions to the incident, including the emerging mental health aspect of story. Please read the following quote, and then let us know what you think in the comments. (And drop by Mr. Scalzi’s site to join the discussion there if you’re so inclined; I can vouch that the commenters there are, for the most part, an intelligent, thoughtful, and decent bunch.)
A friend of mine who suffers from a mental disorder wrote me a letter to suggest to me that the comments in the previous thread about the possible mental illness of Loughner run the risk of carelessly painting everyone who suffers from a mental illness or a disorder with the same behaviors — i.e., they’re all bad/violent/nasty/evil/dangerous, etc.
This is a fair concern on my friend’s part, and so I think it’s worth noting that a) a layman diagnosis of mental illness via the very limited information available online is worth exactly nothing, b) any general equivalence between mental illness or disorder and one being bad/violent/nasty/evil/dangerous, etc. is uninformed and pretty stupid. Loughner may or may not suffer from mental illness, but it’s going to take professional and in-person observation by trained folks to determine that. I imagine that will be happening soon if it’s not already happening. But even if he does, his individual manifestation of his illness is just that — individual, and not representative of anyone else’s.
Or as my friend puts it: “Maybe you could remind folks that the people with mental disorders are around them, right now, being mentally disordered? Also, being lawyers, parents, farmers, soldiers, nurses, truck-drivers, teachers, college students, judges, 5th graders, fishermen, mechanics, martial arts instructors, writers, and general good folks. Just like them.”
For more information, check out this piece from Slate.com, which adds some scientific credence to the argument made by Mr. Scalzi’s anonymous friend.
Editor’s note: For more on the tragedy in Arizona, check out: