Stigma-busting: Taking On Governor Malloy of Connecticut

Connecticut Governor Daniel P. Malloy

Connecticut Governor Daniel P. Malloy

National Public Radio recently ran a piece on a new Connecticut law signed by Governor Daniel P. Malloy. The law requires automatic submission to a national database (The National Instant Background Check System of the FBI) of anyone who voluntarily enters a psychiatric hospital. This incredibly stigmatizing law is one of many passed around the country in the frenzied aftermath of the Newtown shootings.

Listen to NPR’s 5 minute piece here.

Such outrageous stigmatization of those with psychiatric disabilities, especially with the sanction of the State of Connecticut and its governor, cannot go unanswered. Today PsychOdyssey’s Tom Pyle sent this personal letter of objection to Governor Malloy:

June 26, 2013

The Honorable Daniel P. Malloy, Governor

The State House

210 Capitol Avenue

Hartford, CT 06106

Dear Governor:

I have just heard an NPR radio report about the new gun-violence law you recently signed in the wake of the Newtown tragedy. The report said that the law requires automatic registration in a database of those who voluntarily enter a psychiatric hospital. The report featured your advisor, Mr. Michael Laudler (sp?), who says that people should not worry about this law, because a) the database will be secure and b) it will only register those who are “clearly posing some kind of danger to himself or others”.

As a father of a loved one with a severe mental illness who has experienced several voluntary hospitalizations, I strenuously object to this law. While its origin after Newtown is understandable, its intent will be unfulfilled. True, statistically speaking, there is a slightly higher relative association of violence and mental illness, especially where there is co-occurring substance abuse.1 Those with schizophrenia may have a slightly higher relative association with violence than those who don’t. But such relative associations occur much more among those with schizophrenia who are untreated.2,3

In absolute terms, those with schizophrenia committing violence are a far, far smaller number than those without schizophrenia. To be precise, there are thought to be about 4 million Americans with severe mental illness. Of these, 10%, or 400,000, would be considered problematic if not treated, and only 1%, 40,000, are estimated to be “dangerous” if not treated.2 How many of this small cohort commit gun crimes like Newtown? Perhaps not even 100? (It may seem like more because of frenetic, incessant, and sometimes irresponsible media coverage.) By contrast, with most gun violence in America being committed by gang members, it is significant that the FBI reports there are 1.4 million active gang members in this country.4

(By the way, to my knowledge, the mental condition of Adam Lanza, although presumably in question, was never diagnostically established as a mental illness. Sociopathy or psychopathy, mental conditions associated with violence that are different than mental illness, were also not ruled out.)

Copious evidence shows that those with mental illness are far more likely to be victims of violence, not perpetrators. 5,6 Those few with mental illness who do commit such violence are a very small number of those who remain untreated2, such as Jared Loughner of Tucson, AZ, James Holmes of Aurora, CO, and Seung-Hui Cho of Virginia Tech. Those even with untreated schizophrenia remain a very low number of violence perpetrators in absolute terms. And research shows that mental illness alone is not a reliable predictor of violence in any event.7

This flawed law violates the American ideals of individual freedom, liberty, independence, and privacy. But, worse, it maliciously further stigmatizes—now with the official the sanction of the State of Connecticut and its governor—the most vulnerable class of our fellow citizens and loved ones. Those who most need our help, support, and sympathy instead now face government sanctioning because of their personal and private right voluntarily to seek hospital assistance. Managing a psychiatric illness is difficult enough in the current environment. Causing those who voluntarily seek treatment to be registered in a national database will only discourage the very behavior society should be most encouraging: self-directed seeking of treatment.

(As to Mr. Laudler’s comments in the NPR piece itself, two quick points… First, in light of the current NSA scandal, do we really need to address the oxymoron of “secure” government databases?  Second, Mr. Laudler as a criminal justice advisor should know that the standard he invoked, of “danger to self or others”, is that for involuntary, not voluntary, psychiatric hospitalizations.)

This law is an overreach, passed and signed in the heat of very understandable but frenzied emotion after Newtown. It will not reduce gun violence. Instead it only further stigmatizes those with psychiatric disabilities. By effectively discouraging voluntary treatment, this law that you have signed ironically will likely increase the risk of the very violence that we seek to curb.

Sincerely,

Thomas H. Pyle

References

1.         Walsh E, Buchanan A, Fahy T. Violence and schizophrenia: examining the evidence. The British Journal of Psychiatry. June 1, 2002 2002;180(6):490-495.

2.         Torrey EF. The insanity offense. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc.; 2008.

3.         Nielssen O, Large M. Rates of homicide during the first episode of psychosis and after treatment: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Schizophrenia bulletin. July 1, 2010 2010;36(4):702-712.

4.         Federal Bureau of Investigation. 2011 national gang threat assessment: Emerging trends. 2013; http://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/2011-national-gang-threat-assessment.

5.         Swanson JW, Swartz MS, Van Dorn RA, et al. A national study of violent behavior in persons with schizophrenia. Archives of General Psychiatry. 2006;63(5):490-499.

6.         Taylor PJ, Gunn J. Homicides by people with mental illness: Myth and reality. British Journal of Psychiatry 1999;174:9-14.

7.         Elbogen EB, Johnson SC. The intricate link between violence and mental disorder: Results from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions. Archives of General Psychiatry. February 1, 2009 2009;66(2):152-161.

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