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Gun Control: Mental health in the crossfire — Do we really need to go there?

By Michael Sweeney
Posted Feb 14, 2013 in Politics
In the wake of the Sandy Hook, Connecticut and Aurora, Colorado mass shootings–not to mention the Columbine High School mass shooting–the perennial topic of mental health again occupies a prominent place in the vigorous debate surrounding gun control. It is intriguing that the ‘mental health card’ is one of the few that both sides share in their respective rhetorical arsenals. I will not insult my reader’s intelligence by regurgitating how the issue of mental health is constellated into the rhetoric on either side. Instead, I simply wish to flesh out the larger consequences of “going there” by throwing in one’s lot with drawing the mental health card in the present debate.
While there are unquestionably numerous exceptions (including but not limited to schizophrenia, autism, Asperger’s, psychopathy but not anti-social personality disorder), at bottom what is deemed by legislators, civil servants, special interest groups (yes, the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association), etc. as ‘mental illness’ is a social construct. The category of ‘mental illness’ shrewdly, if indirectly, opens a vista on whatever system of values, norms, etc. are currently enshrined in the wider culture. If you subscribe to prevailing model(s) of mental illness as pointing the way to something analogous to, or even emerging from, an organic disease process, let me spare you the disappointment when your efforts bear no fruit.
The mental health ‘profession’ (for an interesting exercise, shift your reading and contemplation of ‘profession’ from a noun to a verb) has long been embedded in an incestuous relationship with the prevailing commercial, social, legislative and other structures of authority at any given time. Here’s some trivia for you. Intelligence testing was originally a utilitarian tool wielded by the federal government and the U.S. military. In the case of the former, these tests were administered in one form or another to those disembarking at Ellis Island and utilized for the purposes of enacting discriminatory immigration policies, and institutionalizing racial stereotypes based on (weird, poor) 'science'. In the case of the latter, these ‘objective’ tests allowed for mass evaluation and stratification of human resources to be deployed (I’m sure it wasn’t at all inconvenient that Caucasians would score higher by design, and thereby retain their privileged status). Now let’s fast-forward. Until the early 1970s, homosexuality was categorized as a psychiatric illness by both the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association. Let’s fast-forward one last time. Despite the fact that the mental health profession subscribes to what is in essence the Hippocratic Oath, do you have any doubts as to what profession engineered enhanced interrogation techniques (a PC euphemism for torture), principles and techniques of psychological warfare (think of the siege on Noriega), etc.?
I will be the first to admit that I have shamelessly “cherry picked” some exceptional examples in support of my argument. However, the most damning indictment against the veracity of mental illness as some discrete “thing itself” that is analogous to a medical disorder, comes from the very process of the differential diagnosis of psychiatric disorders itself–as promulgated by the much-vaunted and far too frequently misappropriated Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (American Psychiatric Association). Across a wide swath of disorders (e.g. depression, anxiety, thought disorders), the subjective symptoms (i.e. altered mood, behavior, thinking, etc.) are only relevant to the extent that they are adjudged by the mental health professional to adversely impact “social” and “occupational” functioning. So what are the criteria for what constitutes ‘proper’ social and occupational functioning? According to who’s standards and interests? Let me break it down in simpler terms: “If the subject acts and thinks in ways that are at odds with prevailing norms, beliefs, standards, etc. then they are vulnerable to being stigmatized as mentally ill”. And, according to both sides in the debate, if one is ‘mentally ill’, then by default they ought have no standing in the present debate.
So, to those who wish to throw the ‘mental health card’ in the gun control debate: As the cliché goes, don’t ask for what you want, you might just get it. Whether you believe it is an inalienable right to arm yourself to the teeth, or by contrast, through the ‘democratic process’ to disarm your fellow citizens, are you willing to cast your lot to the fickle winds that listeth and bloweth wherever mass psychology resides along the bell curve at any given moment? God forbid either side be silenced and disenfranchised as mentally ill!

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