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January 14, 2011 > Why is the Media glorifying the Arizona shooter?

Why is the Media glorifying the Arizona shooter?

By Thomas Gill, Ph.D.

If you have been watching television in the days following the assassination attempt of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the murderous rampage that claimed the lives of six people and injured an additional thirteen, a particular disturbing image has probably been seared into your consciousness; the image of the alleged perpetrator. Over and over and over, those covering the news have flashed his huge bald headed loopy smile goofy mug shot image with his name attached, sometimes with commentators also being shown in a much smaller box adjacent or overlapping the image. Is this a wise idea?

As someone who consumes a lot of political news and has a strong, even visceral interest in politics, there would be some satisfaction in saying: "see, you other guys with your gun rhetoric and 'second amendment solutions' have really done it this time, you're ultimately to blame." It relieves anxiety to draw a clear line from point A to point B in matters horrific, in part because it gives us a sense of control, for at least we know what to focus on. In this case, if the reasoning were right, it would allow us to vigorously condemn and ideally rectify, politic rhetoric that is too suggestive of violence. While I still think that is a worthwhile goal, I do not think it factored very much into this particular case, and two much more important goals are "within our cross-hairs."

Sorry. What we should concern ourselves with, in my professional opinion, is the risk of glorifying the alleged gunman. If political rhetoric can unhinge someone already too loosely moored to reality, than consider how much more of a push will be given by the promise of unprecedented fame - even if it be notoriety - such that hundreds of millions of people will see your face over and over, know your name and history, and be discussing you at water-coolers across the nation, if not the world? One has to expect that several such loosely moored people are watching and chomping at the bit, wondering if they might follow suit. After all, it was not that long ago that a fellow was run over by a truck because he was laying in the middle of a highway, having seen it in a movie. People are great imitators.

The second goal that emerges from this tragedy is the risk we run by not providing adequate services for the mentally ill. This morning I watched a psychiatrist make the claim that Schizophrenics (which appears to be the case with the suspect) are not more violent than the rest of the population, with only about one-percent of untreated psychotic individuals committing a violent crime. I have heard that statistic before, but having worked with many schizophrenics, I was skeptical, so I looked it up (i.e., Googled "rate of violence among schizophrenics"). Recent research suggests that people with schizophrenia are several times more likely to engage in violent crime (as are those with Major Depression and Bipolar Depression, but not those with an anxiety disorder) than those without a diagnosable mental illness (a number that seems to grow smaller with each large study on the matter, but now about 75%). Many mental health professionals and consumers are, understandably, not eager to hear or repeat such findings because the stigmas and difficulties facing people with a major mental illness are already so very daunting, why add to their burdens?

The reason is, of course, so that we can properly prepare for and mitigate the risk, which includes getting afflicted individuals the help that they need. It is worth noting that Arizona is nearly at the bottom of the pack in terms of funding mental health treatment, which is a cautionary tale. It is also worth noting that a major risk factor for violence among those with Schizophrenia is the presence of "command hallucinations," internal hallucinatory voices which urge anti-social actions, and that such psychotic symptoms are treatable. It is also worth noting that those with psychosis, and Schizophrenia is but one form of psychosis, are much more likely to engage in violence when they abuse drugs or alcohol, a finding that holds true for the other classes of major mental disorder and for the population at large (drug and alcohol abusers are seven times more likely to commit acts of violence as the general population).

So what can we take away from this horrific tragedy? In my estimation, it is certainly laudable to calm down the tenor of the political debate and aim for a more civil discourse, but that is not a conclusion in need of a murderous gunman, pure common sense and civility will do. What this incident highlights is the need for identifying and treating those with psychosis and other major mental illness, getting them the treatment they need so that, at the very least, they do not harm others and, at best, to help them live a fulfilling and contributing life. In this time of budget cuts and hardship, we risk real societal harm when we skimp in providing needed services to our must vulnerable populations. And this, by extension, includes not cutting on treatment afforded to those with drug and alcohol problems. Finally, let us think twice about glorifying murderous individuals, we could write to the networks suggesting otherwise or, easier and more to the point, change the channel. After all, at a record thirty-four hours per week of average television viewing per American it is unlikely that we would go so far as to turn off the "idiot box." In the event that we take that drastic and liberating action, might I suggest spending that saved time to do something that might ease the plight of those with mental illness and/or alcohol or drug problems, such as one on one support, attending a NAMI meeting, volunteer work, or writing a letter to an elected official (one actual old fashioned letter has a lot of impact). Every positive action, no matter how small, may indeed help to reduce the likelihood of this sort of tragedy from occurring again.

Thomas Gill is a licensed psychologist in Morgan Hill. He can be reached at (408) 843-7997, and is available for consultations, support, and assistance.

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