--Richard E. Vatz, Ph.D.
Many of the reactions to the Newtown atrocities reflect the problems of new media in the new technological age: they provide more heat than light; they rush to judgment; and, in the area of mental health, they result from the frustrations of people who want to show they care by recommending irresponsible and ineffective cures that could only reduce danger by ignoring the Constitution.
The consistent refrain that we must endure in the competition to be most empathetic includes specifically the President's plea to make "access to mental health care at least as easy as access to a gun."
Let me make this point as clearly as possible: "mental illness" is an undifferentiated construct that includes speculative and unscientific diagnosing of average Americans (the American Psychiatric Association claims that over half of all Americans suffer from mental illness in their lifetimes) as well as manifestly dangerous and allegedly potentially dangerous Americans.
The claims of the mental health community point to a variety of alleged mental health panaceas, including endless counseling – including more available psychiatric intervention and a host of other such aids -- for eliminating the type of violence seen in the cowardly Connecticut massacre of 20 children and 6 adults.
Through what legal mechanism could yet another increase of involuntary psychiatric incarceration lead to fewer mass murders, or mass murders of school children?
Even sympathetic sophisticated psychiatric observers cannot point to anything that would be effective.
Drs. E. Fuller Torrey and Doris A. Fuller, psychiatrists at The Treatment Advocacy Center in Arlington, Va., argue in an article in The Wall Street Journal (December 19, 2012) that "ensur[ing] treatment for those who are known to be potentially dangerous" might reduce mass killings. No evidence, because there is none, although criminally trying manifestly dangerous people rather than taking them in for psychiatric treatment might be effective.
Charles Krauthammer in The Washington Post admits that the freedom/security continuum translates into the fact that increasing involuntary commitment has a Constitutional price. Moreover, he can provide no evidence that short of mass incarcerations can we reduce mass murders without ignoring Constitutional rights, such as the due process clauses of the 5th and 14th Amendments.
Regardless, there is no evidence that previously nonviolent potential mass murderers can be identified.
The fact is that no study has shown that psychiatrists can predict who will be dangerous better than any well-informed layman. Moreover, people intending to commit murder do not announce such to mental health professionals.
Politicians and policy partisans feel compelled to evidence righteous indignation and unlimited public anger when there is an atrocity, whether or not they can offer any evidence that there is a mechanism for relieving a problem.
Mass murders deserve a national discussion to try to locate incremental measures -- whether on the means or the motive -- to reduce national tragedy, but anger should be directed toward practical partial solutions, not simply feeling good by showing how outraged they are.
We are all outraged.
Professor Vatz of Towson University has written on rhetoric and psychiatry for decades and is author of The Only Authentic Book of Persuasion (Kendall Hunt, 2012, 2013)