Criminal illness or sick criminals? Race and Gun Violence

Last night, 60 minutes aired a segment that focused on mental health and mass shootings, highlighting the consequences of systemic neglect of mental illness.  Documenting the history of policy that has transformed America from a nation of asylums (those dehumanizing warehouses) into a prison nation that makes those with mental illness disappear all while creating entire populations of untreated mental illness, the segment offered an important intervention.

The criminalization of mental illness has led to mass incarceration and divestment in necessary treatment.  The cost and consequences of these policies has been evident as it relates to mass shootings. It introduced the issue as follows:

The mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard two weeks ago that resulted in the deaths of 13 people, including the gunman, was the 23rd such incident in the past seven years. It’s becoming harder and harder to ignore the fact that the majority of the people pulling the triggers have turned out to be severely mentally ill — not in control of their faculties — and not receiving treatment.

Although the segment neglected to reflect on how masculinity (and the reproduction of narrow definitions of masculinity) operates within this discussion, it raises important questions in terms of the criminalization of mental illness and the deadly consequences of American policies.


While the result of many decades of neglect, the segment documented the cost and consequences of the Reagan revolution and the “small government” mantra of the GOP.  On the eve of a government shutdown, it should be a striking reminder of the deadly consequences of policy decisions and neglect.

While a very important topic, it also represented a missed opportunity to push the conversation to reflect on how mental health and the lack of available treatment options has consequences as it relates daily violence. Where is the conversation about mental illness as it relates to gun violence? Where is the discussion of PTSD as it relates to Chicago, Stockton, or New Orleans? Where is the conversation about the consequences and dangers of a criminal justice system that only fails to treats mental health issues, that ignores treatable illness, but actually creates a sick population (seemingly guaranteeing sizable prison populations). The entire segment seemed to imply that certain violence, that which is disproportionately carried out by white boys and men, is treatable; yet those instances of gang violence or “everyday gun violence” are unavoidable. No discussion about mental health as it relates to other types of violence, in communities where violence is imagined as inevitable and natural.  We need to have a conversation about mental illness and violence, mental illness and guns in multiple contexts not just as it fits the dominant (white) definitions of innocence and guilt, safe and dangerous, treatable and criminal.

If solutions, interventions, and transformation were a true goal, we might begin to ask “why?” We might begin to look at issues of mental health in every instance of gun violence; we might begin to talk about PDST and trauma in EVERY CASE.  We might look at a recent study from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH), which concluded that 50 and 65 percent of male and female juveniles experienced traumatic brain injuries.

“This shows us that we have a real serious organic medical problem among the adolescents,” Dr. Homer Venters, assistant commissioner of the city’s Correctional Health Services, said at a Board of Corrections meeting in March. “We often end up giving someone a mental health diagnosis, who does not have a mental health problem, but rather TBI.” …. In 2008, the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which runs Correctional Health Services, created a surveillance and tracking system for new injuries suffered by inmates at Rikers Island, including head injuries. But Venters recognized that head injuries sustained even before an individual is incarcerated could also impact his patients and affect their mental health and even their length of stay in jail.  Two of the most significant manifestations of traumatic brain injuries are emotional dysregulation and impaired processing speed. “This means you can’t control your emotions and you can’t follow directions,” Venters told the corrections board. “These are two very serious complications for people who find themselves in jail.”

The high rate of TBI, which likely predates incarceration, surely needs to be part of the conversation about “crime.”  It certainly needs to be part of the “why” or is that a question one only asks when violence occurs involving people we don’t expect to kill or for those we don’t see as “legible” (Neal 2013) threats.  If only we asked the same questions, demanded the same answers of why, we might be able to move forward to actually address mass shootings and “street violence.”   But that would require seeing humanity outside of our race-colored glasses.

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