Tuesday, January 11, 2011

When Your Classmate is Disturbed

In the wake of the deeply troubling killing spree by Jared Lee Loughner in Arizona Sunday, we're being subjected to pious homilies against "inciteful rhetoric." I don't doubt the sincerity of most of the folks connecting these dots, even though I do question their rationality.

To describe quickly and looslely, the notion is that crosshair graphics and the use of the common language of competition and combat contributes in a very substantial way to violent actions, especially by mentally unstable individuals.

I don't buy it. That is to say, I think any such language is a feeble spit into the ocean of human motivation. Your mileage may vary. If it does, then maybe you think altered individual motivations can result from curbing aggressive, mean-spirited, and angry political talk. Even if so,  you have to ask yourself whether you think such a substantive change is even remotely likely.

What troubles me is this: the pissing contest about the relationship between so-called inciteful political rhetoric and violent individual actions has sucked up all the bandwidth. The result is the loss of a legitimate opportunity for a broad spectrum of Americans to focus in a meaningful way on how to recognize truly serious mental disturbance and to respond usefully. Here's Dr Helen with a useful takeaway:
My point is that as long as schools and society simultaneously place the rights of the mentally ill above other citizens while refusing the mentally ill the help that they may desperately need, we will continue to see mass killings like the one in Arizona. People will seemed dazed and ask "why?" until they forget and another horrible killing takes place.
Many of us understand that it's sort of politically incorrect not to have the utmost respect for the rights of the mentally ill, and that bureaucracies will, by law, enforce that perspective. I think we need to do better than that. When the classroom environment suffers and the disturbed person in question is really not benefitting, we owe it to all concerned to ask what we're achieving.

It's extremely important to note that the vast majority of folks who have some mental issue represent no threat at all. Among the ranks of those who have mental disorders, most are invisible and highly functioning members of society: our friends, family, and colleagues. They might be obsessive-compulsive, or suffer from chronic depression or one of its analogues. They may have had a serious breakdown as the result of a cascade of unfortunate and highly stressful circumstances, and then bounced back. Many of them stronger and less brittle for the experience, believe it or not.

But there are some number of folks who suffer from fairly serious mental disturbances, and who are prone to deteriorate quickly if they are unmonitored and untreated. Or treated and monitored in a haphazard or threadbare fashion, which is quite sadly the rule and not the exception. Even among these ranks of folks who have periodic psychotic episodes, there's usually no general threat to public safety even if interacting in public with such folks can be painful and disturbing.

The point here is that we would probably all benefit from increased awareness that uninstitutionalized folks who have serious mental issues do periodically deteriorate and suffer psychotic breaks, and when the deterioration starts, these folks need assessment and treatment. The worst of all possible worlds is for bucks to be passed and asses to be covered.

Ideally, Pima CC and other schools should not simply suspend such a student on the condition of getting a psych eval. They should do their best to make sure that eval and treatment occurs. Classmates of disturbed individuals should at the very least make a calm expression of concern as an official written statement to school administrators. And schools should have an expedited process for this.

We won't fix episodes like this by toning down how we talk about politics. But we could mitigate the frequency and severity of such episodes if we beef up both individuals' understanding of serious mental illness and the cultural framework for ensuring appropriate treatment. If we can do that instead of obsessing about inciteful rhetoric, the lives lost in Arizona will not have have been entirely in vain.


  1. I don't doubt the sincerity of most of the folks connecting these dots, even though I do question their rationality.

    AMEN. Though for many of them I question both, for good, sound, and obvious reasons. They WANT there to be a connection they can exploit, and have no intention of letting the complete actual real-world lack of one prevent them from trying to hang it on the Hated Other anyway. (See Tully's Corollary, as we have here a fine example.)

    In others, the reasons for attempting to fix blame elsewhere may have more to do with dodging it themselves. Sheriff Dupnik's rant becomes more understandable, for example, now that his department has already acknowledged multiple reports of death threats being made by Loughner against people other than Giffords, and had reportedly discouraged the reporting parties from filing charges. This young man was not just giving off warning sign, he was popping up sky-flares and taking out billboards.

  2. Yup. I have felt a definite vibe of wanting this incident to be directly attributable to right wing kookery, from the get go. As facts bubbled out, there was clinging despite contrary evidence, and continued attempts to force the facts to fit the preconceived narrative.

    At one point I recall someone on Sunday saying that they didn't want to talk about political motivations that day (when they were already seeing the argument slip away), because we'd all know soon enough when the identity of the alleged accomplice became known. As it became clear Loughner acted from deep personal disturbance, some folks clung to the hope that there was still a right wing kook mastermind to be discovered in time to pull the silly progressive fat from the fire.

    Polls suggest to me that folks aren't buying this. I've started to do what I guess is a sort of an impromptu audit of polls that involve issues of high partisanship. I start with a presumption that on issues related to high partisanship, there's a rough 3rd of the public on each side that are zombies. Their views are static and predetermined, so you have to subtract those folks if you want to get a sense of what opinions are among folks who are actually capable of forming new opinions or revising old ones on the basis of new data.

    So take the poll that reported that by 57-43, folks weren't buying the connection between inciteful rhetoric and Loughner's actions. I presume that the fat third of americans that are devoted conservatives already knew their answer to this question before Loughner even acted. Same for the fat third of Americans who are devoted liberals. If you call each of those fat thirds 35%, then you only have 30% left who could go either way. They broke 22-8 against the inciteful rhetoric hypothesis.

    In other words, by a margin between 2 to 1 and 3 to 1, folks who are truly capable of independent thought don't buy the progressive narrative.

  3. That would be the third of us in the middle ... which I also suspect has a much higher proportion of people who actually think for themselves than the outlying thirds do. The left has really beclowned themselves this time. So thoroughly that they're actively helping the right.

    New reports this morning are that law enforcement had made several visits to the Loughner home before the events of last week. If I were Dupnik I'd be polishing my resume, emphasizing alternative skill-sets. Or consider a quite retirement.

  4. tangential comment seen this evening:

    "New definition of irony: After spending days trying to pull Palin into this tragedy, people are now complaining that she is making this about herself."

  5. I think Palin is in no way up to the task of being an elected national leader, and have have savaged her on occasion when I felt she deserved it.

    But I am entirely on her side on this issue. Progressive opportunists tried to make these shootings about the Tea Party and Sara Palin, and they were simply wrong.

    Tonight, Obama gave them the "stop digging" signal, but from what I see on MSNBC, they seem quite tone deaf.

    BTW, I thought Obama's speech was splendid. I know you can't stand him, but still.

  6. You know my take: Palin gave up on being electable to higher office when she quit higher office in mid-term. Her use of the term "blood libel" was a mistake, but given the crap-barrage aimed at her, that's a quibble by comparison at best. Those complaining it was over the top should look in a mirror before bitching. All they do by whining about it is emphasize that she was the target of a majorly unwarranted, thoroughly disgusting and completely gratuitous smear attempt. (I have no doubt that the left will transition to blaming Bush any moment now.)

    You know I avoid TV speechifyin' like infectious plague, but I did read the transcript and I agree that our national Rohrschach blot has never looked better as President. It was a very good speech. I suspect he has a Clinton whispering in his ear since the Fall Debacle, but hey, fine by me. And I did enjoy the thump-thump of Krugman et al. passing under the bus wheels.

    Props to Steve Israel (D-NY) whose email yesterday as DCCC chairman was likewise measured, nonpartisan and non-poo-flinging, and which passed along Gifford's husband's suggestion of donations to the Tucson Community Food Bank and the Southern AZ Red Cross.

    I thought about posting a list of the worst leftist/Dem idiocy, but there's too much. Just call it at least half of WaPo and all of NYT and and the usual idjit safe-district nuts and that covers the top lines. I'm surprised Tom Friedman hasn't been along to tell us how the Chicoms manage these things so much better. But EJ Dionne is doing his part to keep Krugman company in the drooling dipstick department.

  7. Also, having been persuing some of the saner left-leaning sites, I am somewhat surprised at how few on the left GET what Palin is for the TPM and the GOP. I suspect that political correctness has been so successful that the mere mention of what she is cannot enter their conscious minds without triggering massive guilt cascades related to the other uses of the phrase.

    Which is a shame, as the applicable usage is a very appropriate, and has no good alternate.

  8. Right, the only way to win is not to play.