Give me liberty or give me — mental illness?

Patrick Henry, one of the key figures in the American revolution, once said in a speech to the Virginia Convention, “Give me liberty or give me death!” I’m pretty sure that the recent responses to the heartbreaking events in Newtown, Connecticut have Mr. Henry rolling over in his grave — for several different reasons. First, the idea that a necessary response to the tragedy is banning guns, and second, that we need to focus more on “mental illness.”

I’m not going to delve too deeply into the first for the purposes of this article; plenty of others are making the argument that banning firearms does not keep lawbreakers from using them (as logic, and statistics, can attest). Suffice to say that owning firearms is a constitutional right designed to protect the individual liberties of American citizens.

The second, however, is a topic I see coming up more often – and the conclusions being drawn are equally chilling, if not more so, for those concerned with individual liberties. So what are we to say about the rights of those who struggle with life – and by that I mean, those labeled as suffering from “mental illness?” Advocates from the leftright and in between are all weighing in because 20-year-old Adam Lanza went on a shooting spree. “We must talk as a nation about mental illness,” they say.

My question is: to what end? What exactly do you wish to accomplish?

Sympathy? Forced treatment? Institutionalization?

Lanza is now being described as “abnormal” and quite bright. He reportedly graduated from high school at 15 (that is certainly abnormal). He had never officially been diagnosed with any mental illness that we know of at this point, and most people who knew him saw him as a mild-mannered “nerd.” Some people report that he had “outbursts” – but if we’re talking about adolescents, it may actually be abnormal to not have them. Certainly, none of these are signs that deserved any further perusal – at least not from anyone outside his immediate family.

Yet we have people acting as if this tragedy might well have been prevented if only we better understood “mental illness” – the assumption being that Lanza’s background qualified him for that label. If only society had seen those troubling signs and taken action, forced him to get help – right? But if that’s the new standard on which we’re basing forced psychological or psychiatric intervention, we have a serious assault on personal liberty that would put gun bans to shame.

Even more of an offense to basic liberties is forced institutionalization. The government does not have a right to incarcerate anyone based on something he or she hasn’t done yet. Unless an individual has made a credible threat to harm someone, the idea that we should institutionalize the “mentally ill” is abhorrent.

And here is the crux of why it is abhorrent: because we have no idea what “mentally ill” means.

There isn’t a blood test you can take to tell you if you’re mentally ill, or just how “mentally ill” you are. Such tests can tell how far along your cancer is – but they can’t tell you much about your emotional state. Mental illness is identified by behavioral characteristics that society finds undesirable – and these have changed with changing societal mores. This makes such judgments especially susceptible to political correctness, corruption and abuse of individual freedom.

So Lanza was smart and had a bad attitude? You better lock me up right now, because I graduated high school at 16 with a seriously intense overdramatic attitude problem. So he was a loner? So are millions of people who don’t end up killing people. Are we to lock them all away?

If someone was actually suffering from a disease (some type of brain tumor or malfunction, perhaps) that destroyed the ability to think, then we might have something to actually debate. But of course that is not what we’re talking about with the label mental illness. That is not to say, of course, that it’s unacceptable to advocate for more resources or psychotropic drugs for those labeled as such.

But, by associating “mental illness” with evil people who shoot innocent children, you’re insulting the vast majority of people who live peacefully their whole lives with such current diagnoses as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, and any other “disorder” that society currently catalogues (remember when homosexuality was a mental illness?).

And make no mistake – this association between Lanza’s behavior and “mental illness” is certainly not establishing sympathy or understanding for those so diagnosed. It’s stigmatizing them further with absolutely no reason. Should all of us be fearful of our children, siblings, cousins, parents, or others who’ve been given these labels? They might snap, after all, and start mass-murdering children.

Except for the facts, of course. A recent USA Today article about mental illness cited a study from 2006 that found “the vast majority of violent acts in America are not attributable to mental illness.” On another front, drunk drivers kill lots of people (quite a few more than the headline-grabbing mass shooters); we aren’t outlawing cars or alcohol, or locking up alcoholics.

At this point, it appears that Adam Lanza was no more “mentally ill” than most of us. He did, however, exhibit the all too human tendency to do something horrifically evil. This was his choice, and the reason why had he survived the incident, he should be held fully responsible. We don’t want to call it evil because we don’t want to admit that we all have the capability of making such choices. But we certainly do. The very reason a society can exist is because the vast majority of us choose, for various reasons, never to make such unthinkable choices. That’s reality. It’s not because some of us are mentally healthy, and some of us are mentally ill.

However, if we call evil like Lanza’s “mental illness,” we might feel better. We can perhaps lock it away and pretend that it can be contained. If only it were that easy, that simple, to deal with the problem of evil.

It is not.

About the Author
Emily Schrader is a writer and political consultant originally from Los Angeles, California. She made aliyah in 2015 and works for a nonprofit organization in Jerusalem. Emily has a BA from the University of Southern California and MA from Tel Aviv University. She has previously written for many different publications including The Weekly Standard, The Jerusalem Post, and more.