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February 01, 2011

Evil ... or Mentally Ill?

We received an essay from Burlington playwright James Lantz that we didn't have room for in the paper. But I thought the subject matter deserved publication, so decided to share it on Blurt.

Jim writes in response to the shootings in Tucson and Virginia Tech — and way too many other places — from a very personal perspective, and suggests that our typical assessment of these gunmen is short-sighted. But here, I'll let him tell it.  —Pamela Polston

After the tragedy in Tucson a few weeks ago, it was inevitable that we would hear the word “evil.” Sarah Palin called the accused gunman “an evil man.” Former teachers referred to his “evil stare.” The New York Post said he looked “every bit the face of evil.” Even President Obama used the word in his moving memorial speech: “Scripture tells us that there is evil in the world…”

Jared Loughner may be a lot of things, but he's not evil. To call him that is to grossly mistake him for something that's biblical in scope when the reality is far less profound: Jared Loughner is mentally ill.


I know mental illness. I've seen it up close and unleashed. And the more I read about this young man's slide into insanity, the more it sounds eerily similar to somebody close to me, and his slide years earlier. Let's call this person Corey.

In a very short time, Corey went from a caring kid who had a knack for knowing the right gift to give anybody to a delusional young man who sported a mohawk and looked like Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver. Only scarier.

Corey did 5000 situps a day. He heard voices. Laughed randomly. Wouldn't use one hand. Hinted at vast conspiracies.

Driving one night, he had a head-on collision that the police believed to be deliberate. Released, Corey later followed a random guy across four state lines to end up in his driveway pointing a gun at him. When he was arrested, the back seat of Corey’s car was covered with hundreds of sheets of notebook paper, each scrawled with hundreds of license-plate numbers.

This was a scary time for Corey's friends and family. We locked our doors. Spoke in code. Any interaction with him was tight and tense. One night began on a West Virginia highway when Corey tried jumping out of a speeding car. It ended with him in a straitjacket.

While all of us would like to forget that terrible time, one thing will always remain clear: How nearly impossible it was for us to get him any help. It took years of moving him through a maze of jails, hospitals and courts before we finally found the help he needed.

Now, Corey is much better. Yes, because of his medication he weighs more than he'd like to, and his teeth are bad. But he's stable and happy and lives independently. I'm proud of him.

Mental illness is not evil, not even close. It's a disease. And we can actually do something about it. The tragedy last month was not the result of failed parenting, weak gun laws, a bad community college or inflated national rhetoric. Instead, the sound heard in Tucson on that sunny Saturday morning was the great snap of our weak commitment to the mentally ill breaking, and this time it broke bad.

Let's face it: We have a national aversion to looking at mental illness for what it really is. Whenever it rears into view, we get scared. And anything that scares a big country must itself be Big.

Why have we, for centuries, conflated mental illness and evil? It's time we stopped. To add the weight of “profound immorality, wickedness and depravity” to this already overburdened disease is simply wrong.

I know and respect many people who suffer from mental illness. If you want to see strength in action, get to know one of them. Like me, you may come away in awe of what it can take just to get through an ordinary day.

You may also find beauty. Recently, I saw a man I know sitting quietly on a bench. When I said hello and he didn't respond, I asked him if he was all right. He handed me a note that read:

There are a lot of smart and intelligent people in the world
I will spend the day watching them to find out their secrets
Let me do that all day long without a break

Here on this tiny paper was a great insight into mental illness — it seems to want to know us better than we want to know it. It yearns to be included in our world. I see this in Jared Loughner's smiling mugshot. While many have seen a wild lunatic beneath the shaved head and eyebrows, there is also a look that says: Now I am finally seen.

This is what can happen when mental illness is ignored and left untreated. As a nation, we should heed the terrible moments at Virginia Tech and in Tucson as wake-up calls. The best way to honor the lives of those lost is to recognize the real reason they died. Until then, all the talk about evil is, well, just crazy.

Jim is a very smart man. Immediately following the media as they were following the shooting I wondered how long before there might be some insightful reporting on motive being anything but political...At a time when our state is cutting mental health services we ought to give this a very good look. Thanks for tweeting this message from your blog. Caught my attention and hope it catches others.

~ Anne Barbano The Next Frontier (autism, disabilities and diagnosis radio program WOMM)

It's a nice tale and advocation for treatment of the mentally ill, but it doesn't do much in the way of arguing one is or isn't evil. James doesn't define evil in his opinion and states it is biblical in scope essentially dismissing the notion that anyone is evil. Are people evil and what is evil? Is being mentally ill evil? If we give Charles Manson a heavy dose of Valium every hour and he is calm does that mean he isn't evil?

It's a nicely written piece but outside of that I don't see where it goes toward demonstrating if one is evil or not.

This article is insightful. I think everyone should take a moment and read this. Mental illness is a disease that many people face in this country including, your family, friends, partners, neighbors, colleagues, etc. To dismiss these people as evil who suffer from mental illness is scary to me and should be to the country. People with mental illness should be given the opportunity to seek help and be treated, a lot of mental illnesses can be just that, treated. I agree with Anne Barbano, why is our state cutting mental health services? Why are we denying our fellow friends and neighbors the opportunity to live an independent, long and fulfilling life?

I hope that you're lucky enough that none of your loved ones lives with a mental illness. If they do, I hope you don't experience the fear, desperation, and isolation that many of us do, when we love someone whose reality is skewed to a breaking point, who either refuses or is ineligible for treatment - or is in treatment whose existence is threatened by "cost-cutting measures." For many, many of these people the only "treatment" is prison, and this is all too often a deadly place for the mentally ill.

The term "evil" is an easy one to throw around; the solutions to effective treatment are not easy, and not inexpensive. Labelling someone as "evil" is blithe, irresponsible, and disrepectful to the individual and to their family. It's a dismissive term and a concept that is taken far too lightly by those who would use it to further their own ends. Which is more evil: a mentally ill individual acting out their paranoid delusions, or the politician who uses the word "evil" to promote her own murderous agenda?

Amen to Cecile. Scott Peck, in his book "People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil", evidently identified these traits in "evil" individuals:

-- Is consistently self deceiving, with the intent of avoiding guilt and maintaining a self image of perfection;
-- Deceives others as a consequence of their own self deception;
-- Projects his or her evils and sins onto very specific targets (scapegoats) while being apparently normal with everyone else ("their insensitivity toward him was selective");
-- Commonly hates with the pretense of love, for the purposes of self deception as much as deception of others;
-- Abuses political (emotional) power ("the imposition of one's will upon others by overt or covert coercion";
-- Maintains a high level of respectability and lies incessantly in order to do so;
-- Is consistent in his or her sins. Evil persons are characterized not so much by the magnitude of their sins, but by their consistency (of destructiveness);
-- Is unable to think from the viewpoint of their victim (scapegoat); and
-- Has a covert intolerance to criticism and other forms of narcissistic injury.

And, of course, those traits refer to individuals. What of evil systems?

For me the question comes down to involuntary treatment. The nature of the illness may make the victim unwillingly to accept our help, or unable to take medication.

Many feel that involuntary medication is (pardon) evil and so is confinement to a pyschiatric facility.

Is it not also evil to allow these people to wander the streets in sub zero weather? To leave them where they are preyed upon by others? Or is it the price we (and they) pay for a free society?

I don't know.

i'm not sure exactly how i define evil. i can call certain acts evil with some degree of certainty. i feel less certain doing so with people, because plenty of decent people can do shitty things that on their own are evil acts. the gunman is certainly mentally ill, but i'd argue that anyone willing to commit evil in a premeditated way is mentally ill. calling him (the person) evil might be superficial sensationalist journalism. calling his act of violence evil is simple fact in my mind. they're not necessarily the same thing. enough thought could rationalize away all the evil people in the world, to be shoehorned into various categories that are spelled differently but still linked to evil acts in some way, but we'd still be left with evil acts committed by people, some of whom could have been helped, some of whom could have been stopped, and some that (either through negligence, apathy, or their own cleverness since many evil acts are committed by very smart people) will slip through the cracks.

Men do not differ much about what things they will call evils; they differ enormously about what evils they will call excusable.

G.K. Chesterton

Mental illness has a solid presence in our society. All of us as global and local citizens need to become aware of its power to harm not only the ill person, but all others within the scope of the ill person's connections, the doctors, nurses but also the neighbors, family and strangers. To serve, truly, the mentally ill folks, our society needs a long term commitment to the problem, its causes, its treatments meaning followthrough for the life of the ill individual. We must stop with just diagnosingg, giving out pills and setting them off on the street. They need to be helped, supervised, checked in on and guided. Many times that means saying "no" to self medication, no to living alone and carefully screening
the so-called "helpers" to determine if help is really forthcoming. In Vermont, we set them up for failure, by diagnosing, handing out meds, having them delivered for free, given out for free and never doing any REAL followup or followthrough. I know, as the sister of a now deceased mentally ill person that our justice system treated as a well individual, whereas if he had had cancer, he would be alive with an array of doctors and nurses and aids to help him carry on from day to day til functional or well, ie cured. There is no cure for mental illness but our society wants it to be cured with the pills. Take these and go away. Throwing money at a problem never cures it only keeps it at bay for a bit. Our mentally ill brothers and sisters need REAL care, for life with consequences for those failing to provide what is paid for by our tax dollars.

The lack of affordable, relevant, compassionate care for the mentally ill remains a persistent problem in the United States. Though the failures and inadequacies of current programs are widely acknowledged, funding for treatment continues to decline nationwide.

At a time when our most vulnerable face the realities of an economic downturn, it is critical that serious steps be taken to ensure a viable safety-net exists both for the mentally ill and their families.

Sentiments from a fellow depression survivor: Dooce Dialogue

Mental Health spending decreases: U.S. Sees Slowdown in Spending on Mental Health

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