Newtown and the Ever-increasing Audiences for the Myths of Mental Illness

–Richard E. Vatz

     “The December mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. – and other recent high-profile attacks involving shooters with mental illnesses – have renewed public focus on mental health and started a national conversation about the role of school psychologists and social workers in students’ lives.  This year, several bills were introduced in Congress addressing a shortage of mental-health professionals in schools.”  T. Rees Shapiro, “Fairfax schoolpsychologists stretched thin,” The Washington Post, March 30, 2013


     If my friend Thomas Szasz, who died last year, were alive today and read about all of the references to “mental illnesses” and “mental health” as a way to lessen the number of mass killings, he would say, “Am I surprised?  No, of course not.  This is a way to pretend that evil does not motivate such atrocities and a way for politicians to act as if they have discovered a way to stop them.”

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     As Dr. Szasz wrote tirelessly in scores of books and thousands of articles,, “mental illness” is a metaphor: its prolific usage is a verbal way to throw up our hands and bewail the fact that the human condition includes violence, and there will always be violent people, while claiming that there is a way to prevent the made-up “disease” that causes it.


     The Sandy Hook murderer, 20 year-old Adam Lanza, viewed killing as a contest, wherein he wanted to kill more people or commit a more memorable crime than Anders Breivik in Norway, who killed 77 people in a shooting and bomb attack in Norway two years ago, and/or Seung-Hui Cho, mass murderer at Virginia Tech.

     Throughout our society immediate calls for gun control and more expensive control of the “mentally ill” abounded and abound. 

     What is mental illness?  There are hundreds of categories of “mental disorders,” categories, incidentally, that do not include mental illness in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of the American Psychiatric Association.  Perhaps due to guilt – how Freudian – the nation’s psychiatrists implicitly admit that mental problems are not products of mental illnesses, since, as Szasz always argued, the mind is not an organ.


      Anyone can be diagnosed with mental illness if he or she goes to the right psychiatrist, psychologist or social worker. 

     Ah, yes, you say, but diagnoses of “severe mental illnesses” are different.  Indeed, they are, and they may include more anti-social or self-destructive behavior, but such diagnoses will not help society identify the relatively tiny number of people who will and who will not commit mass murderers.

     Ah, yes, you say, but schizophrenia is a real diagnosable disease and many mass murderers are schizophrenic.  Indeed the even tinier number of people labeled as “schizophrenia” may actually include some – but not all – people who have somatic brain disease, but you could research schizophrenia until the end of time and not be able to predict who would commit a mass murder, and, moreover, people like Adam Lanza would strike no one as schizophrenic until he committed the murderous acts he committed.

     Want to hold 1,000,000 in preventive detention?  You could do that, but even though you are violating our Constitutional rights, there is no reason to believe you could stop the periodic mass murderer.

     Newtown was horrible beyond words, and there may be some ways to lessen the likelihood and expanse of some atrocities, say, by increasing security at schools.  But you claim a pandemic of “mental illness” and frighten people out of their wits (Wit Absence Disorder), and it won’t provide you anything but an expensive way to try to control people’s behavior that simply won’t work to prevent mass murder.


Professor Vatz has written on psychiatric persuasion for decades and is the author of The Only Authentic Book of Persuasion” (Kendall Hunt, 2012, 2013)

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