Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Yet another opinion on mental illness, violence, and responsibility

I am hesitant to add to the din about mental illness and violence in the wake of Jared Loughner, but I’d like to make a few small points on the topic.

First of all, I have to say, I find it a little creepy that someone describing himself as a forensic psychologist, would so quickly put up a full website, complete with domain name, dedicated to this suddenly infamous young man: loughner.info

It feels a little exploitative, but probably not anymore than traditional journalism I suppose. The posts seem thoughtful and informative in any case.

a smiling less crazy Jared Loughner
But, to the real point, the consensus seems to be that our Mr. Loughner was coming down with a nasty case of schizophrenia. As more details come out, the more this seems likely. I wouldn’t dispute it, but I'm not going to diagnose him via media reports, either.  Still, I think it's fair to acknowledge there is a mental health component and this ties into larger social concerns about mental illness, danger and responsibility. 

The next questions are, (1) what then is the personal/moral responsibility of a person with mental illness in regard to their behaviors, and (2) are people with schizophrenia dangerous?

As to the first, well, maybe it’s a question for the philosophers, but that won’t stop the lawyers and pundits from opining. I won’t bother to answer such an expansive question myself, but I do want to make note of the fact there is a very large population of people with schizophrenia who suffer from paranoid delusions who chose not to act out violently toward others. This interesting fact touches on both of the above mentioned questions, I think. From my own experience, I’ve known quite a few individuals who believed very strongly that they were being persecuted by specific others in some way and in some cases the belief systems included threats to their lives. Very often this involves poison but there can be any number of creative delusory devices.

So why is it that people who believe they are being poisoned, attacked and persecuted, are so often non-violent even in the face of an overwhelming belief that their own life is being threatened?

This is something like a key question and the answer(s) touch on both personal responsibility and risk assessment. But, this question tends to get overshadowed in the immediate aftermath of a spectacular psychiatric failure as we saw recently in Tucson and not so long ago at Virginia Tech.

The somewhat simplistic explanation is that most people who suffer from schizophrenia have an intact moral capacity and it is only a small subset of people with schizophrenia who also fit an anti-social profile in which there is a lack of compassion or concern for others. I do think this is true in a general sense even if the categories of schizophrenia and anti-social personality suffer from fuzzy boundaries and arbitrariness.

The other important clinical factor is severity of delusions (along with other symptoms). For someone with schizophrenia, delusions seem to follow a sort of hydraulic principle. That is, as the severity of symptoms fluctuate, there is a shift in the psychic pressure of the delusional system (metaphorically speaking). As an episode increases in severity, the delusions shift in two ways, (1) strength of belief, and (2) amount of mental time and energy given over to ruminating on the delusions. With increasing severity there is an intensifying obsessional quality in the person and an increasingly aggressive reaction to reality checks or questioning of the delusory beliefs. Severity comes into play with violence and responsibility because the greater the severity of the symptoms, the harder it is for the individual to ignore the direction of delusory thought and the harder it is for the person to receive any form of feedback or external redirection.

There can be a number of ameliorating factors however. One factor, in some cases, is life experience. After going through a number of episodes, some individuals learn from very difficult experiences (homelessness, hospitalization, loss of family support, etc.) that their beliefs can be problematic and with time this can aid an individual in developing coping and self-management skills. The reverse is also true, that a young person who is first developing schizophrenia does not have the benefit of those life experiences and the first emergence of delusory beliefs can have a seductive, intoxicating quality and are very difficult to challenge from the outside.

Aside from clinical analysis, I think it is very important to know that people with schizophrenia are individuals. I do not mean this as a slogan, but in a very real way. As overwhelming as the effects of schizophrenia may appear to be on the personality, it does not in fact do away with it. People living with psychosis and schizophrenia continue to hold and express values and morals and a full range of human motivations both good and bad, just like the rest of us. More so than any other label in mental health, the term “schizophrenia” too often overshadows the person.

These kind of catastrophic events, as in Tucson, tend to trigger the latent fears in the public and inevitably lead to calls for greater controls on the mentally ill and stronger commitment laws to allow the mental health system to more easily intervene with involuntarily measures. All this puts the focus on the illness while de-emphasizing personal volition. In this round, by and large, I think the media response has been a little better informed than after Virginia Tech and mostly I see calls for increased mental health services, which is a safe and reasonable position to take, although, I think people need to be better informed about the limits of what mental health services can do. Simply throwing more money at the problem is not necessarily going to help, and there is a good chance the resources will be diverted to other people and other agendas.

Even where a wide array of mental health services are available, the people who need them most often have no interest in them (while there are plenty of other people who don't really need all that care but are willing to accept social security checks and get all kinds of counseling--but that's a whole different story). There really is no way to force therapy and treatment on someone who absolutely doesn't want it, not unless they can be placed under civil commitment, and that is determined by presentation of immediate and believable danger to self or others. Assessing danger has elements of best and customary practice, but in the end it is educated guesswork based on past history, stated intentions and a range of known risk factors. How do you know their history? Well, unless you get past clinical data, it comes down to what the client is able or willing to tell you. For someone who doesn't have an established history, assessing danger is quite tricky and there is a certain amount of intuition and personal judgment involved. There simply are no guarantees or simple solutions.

1 comment:

  1. Great analysis. I think we all can agree that JL was a very disturbed and mentally troubled young man that our mental health system (such as it is) failed to treat. But he's one of many. He has just caught our attention because of his horrible act. As you point out, he had values and morals that were probably antisocial in nature even before accounting for his psychiatric condition. His psychosis made it harder for him to challenge those beliefs, but there's no guarantee that he'd be able to challenge them successfully even with perfect mental health.

    Unless you were in JL's mind or close enough to hear his delusory ramblings-- if he made them known-- we simply could not have prevented this act. Just like the TSA's "no-fly lists" and body scanners, if we're going to act on our hindsight (which is always 20/20, of course) and "treat" everyone with JL's questionable, eccentric beliefs, we will violate the rights of many people to choose uncharacteristic ways of living, and probably do nothing to change the likelihood of future despicable crimes.