Do Protests Incite People With Mental Illness?
New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton sparked a debate on the Today show yesterday after he said, referencing Saturday’s shooting of two police officers by a mentally ill man, that “the targeting of these two police officers was a direct spin-off of this issue of these demonstrations” about police use of force against unarmed Black men.
We hear from Jonathan Metzl, a psychiatrist who has studied the nexus of mental illness and social protest movements.
Metzl tells Here & Now’s Robin Young he sees parallels to an issue he’s researched: how doctors “pathologized” the politics of the 1960s and as a result, schizophrenia “became a Black disease.”
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About connecting the gunman’s motive to the “Black Lives Matter” movement
“I thought that Police Commissioner Bratton’s assumption that the violent actions of the perpetrator were a spin-off of the demonstrations really was unfortunate for a couple of reasons. One is that the demonstrations were actually advocating, for the most part, the opposite of what the actions of the gunman turned out to be in that they were advocating nonviolence, ‘hands up, don’t shoot.’ Second is that there is a lot of assumption in the media about Mr. Brinsley and his psychological history, and a lot of it is unknown at this point, it is to be determined.”
About how people with mental illness are more prone to protest
“We have seen time and again throughout history that people who commit senseless gun violence do respond to a host of external stimuli. So, we have examples from everything from Tuscon to Aurora to Columbine — and again I think in this case, where people who are at risk and might be a bit mentally unstable, pick up on political and social stimuli and use them as causes for committing certain kind of crimes. Again I think where we get into trouble is saying that the content of that political protest caused the senseless acts and we don’t have the evidence to support that.”
More about why people with mental illness are more prone to demonstrate
“The classic definition of paranoia is that you over inflate or over generalize an external threat. You internalize and then project it outside into the world. And certainly people with a propensity towards paranoia do again pick up, as we see in this case, and distort the message of political movements as a means of justifying an often illogical or dangerous conclusion….But I think the larger point again is that there is no causal connection between the content of politics and mental illness. And the other point I want to make about that, is that as an aggregate group, there is a far more instances of people with mental illness being the victims of violence rather than the perpetrators of violence.”
- Jonathan Metzl is director of the Center for Medicine, Health and Society and professor of psychiatry at Vanderbilt University. He tweets @JonathanMetzl.
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