Sadly, Here We Go Again

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A horror was perpetrated against eight victims of Rodrick Dantzler this past Thursday when he hunted down, shot, and killed his wife and daughter, killed five other people, and wounded an eighth. After evading police, he terrorized a family of three by taking them hostage before finally killing himself. My heart goes out to all the victims of this horrendous rampage, including all the family members of those who had been killed and hurt.

Dantzler had a history of violent behavior. Four people had filed personal protection orders against him including his own mother. He did time more than once for violently attacking people.

Sadly, as in the shooting of Congresswoman Garbrielle Giffords back in January, the tragedy gets compounded by ties made between the attacks and the attackers' mental health diagnosis. This time around, according to the Grand Rapids Press,

[Grand Rapids Police Chief Kevin] Belk said he did not know Dantzler’s mental-health diagnosis, but said he was “obviously a very troubled individual involved in some horrible activity.”

Why is Belk speculating about Dantzler’s mental-health diagnosis? Whether or not Dantzler had a mental illness is no more relevant to this situation than the fact that he was African-American. In fact, people with mental illnesses are more likely to be victims of crime than the general population, and less likely to be perpetrators of crime.

I wonder why people feel the need to talk about mental illnesses when surprising and horrific crimes like this take place. Movies and TV shows frequently finger mental illness as the cause of someone’s violent behavior need some of the blame. So does the assumption by many, if not most journalists, who accept the thesis that horrendous crimes must always have mental illness as an explanation for the perpetrator’s behavior. What do you think?

Let's pray for the victims' family and friends. And let's not multiply the tragedy by assuming that mental illness caused this rampage.

Update: Monday, July 11

In our society, the default assumption, when a person commits a horrible crime like this, is that the person MUST have had a mental illness, and that the mental illness is the sole explanation for the criminal behavior. News reports now say that Dantzler did have a diagnosis of bi-polar disorder. Sadly, now many people are focusing on that one aspect of the whole of his being and saying that it explains his violent behavior. That's what I'm arguing against. Having bi-polar disorder does not explain why he committed these crimes any more than the fact that he was male or 34 years old.

A combination of factors, in which serious mental illness is part of the mix, may result in violent behavior. For example, in the article, "Violence and Schizophrenia," author Peggy Thompson notes, "if an individual with schizophrenia who is not being treated and is abusing drugs moves in next door, then yes, people have a legitimate reason to fear that person." On the other hand, she also notes, "Individuals with schizophrenia who are being treated are no more dangerous than the general population"

Update: Friday, July 29

After the 2010 tragic shooting in Tucson, Arizona, Scientific American wondered "What Causes Someone to Act on Violent Impulses and Commit Murder?" Marco Iacoboni, a UCLA professor of psychiatry, cited University of Michigan proessor of social psychology Richard Nisbett, "the world's greatest authority on intelligence," as stating plainly that he'd rather have his son be high in self-control than intelligence." According to Iacoboni, "Self-control is key to a well-functioning life, becaus our brain makes us easily [susceptible] to all sorts of influences. Watching a movie showing violent acts predisposes us to act violently. Even just listening to violent rhetoric makes us more inclined to be violent. . . . This is why control mechanisms are so important." (Larry Greenemeier, "What Causes Someone to Act on Violent Impulses and Commit Murder?" www.scientificamerican.com (1/12/11), quoted in Leadership Journal, Spring 2011, p. 55.)

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Mark, I appreciate what you are trying to get at -- it's dangerous to make foregone conclusions about a person's mental illnesses in the wake of a tragedy like this. 

 

However, I wonder if it's fair to assume that Chief Belk was actually making that connection in the first place.  It seems to me that he may have been actually trying to avoid such a conclusion -- and here's why.  I can imagine a reporter asking a question -- "Was Dantzler suffering from Bipolar disorder? Or Schizophroneia?"  And rather than affirm a conclusion, the chief replies, "I don't know about mental illness; but he was obviously a troubled individual."  It seems to me from the quote you cite, he was NOT speculating about mental illness -- just the opposite.  He was trying NOT to make a firm conclusion on that.

Mark, I must agree with Rob on this.  You do bring out a very good perspective that I was not aware of before reading your article, and for that I am truly grateful.  It will help me process some disabilitiy questions much better now.  However, in this case, I do not necessarily see the point you are ascribing to Chief Belk.  The shooter obviously was "troubled" about something.  Does "troubled" always mean mental illness?  I don't think so.  Are you over-extending your point in this case?

Guide

Rob, good observation. As you point out, the context of Belk's quote would help one understand his intent, and he may have been trying to avoid saying that mental illness was the cause of Dantzler's attack. However, if a reporter had asked him about Dantzler's mental health diagnosis, that would still suggest that a reporter was trying to finger mental illness as the cause.

Community Builder

On the topic of the relationship between a crime and mental health, the following article may be of interest.

The Autism Defensehttp://spectrum.ieee.org/telecom/internet/the-autistic-hacker

Gary McKinnon hacked thousands of government computers. His lawyers say his autism is to blame.

Guide

Terry, thanks for this link to "The Autism Defense." I know very little about the legal system, nor about "the insantiy defense." But it seems to me that if McKinnon's defenders try to get him off the hook from his criminal behavior solely because he has Asperger's syndrome, they are walking into a nasty compromise. On the one hand, if they convince a judge not to extradite him to the US to be tried for his actions because he has Asperger's, they win their case. On the other hand, if they "win" this case using this defense, anyone with Asperger's is smeared by stigma: "if you know someone who has Asperger's, watch out. He's probably going to behave in a criminal manner."

Once again, not knowing much about the legal system, it looks to me like the insanity defense has done the same thing against people with mental illness. An insanity defense may keep a person from going to jail if he wins the case, but the defense itself stigmatizes all people with mental illness.

This in turn raises a huge question which people much wiser than I have struggled with for centuries: when is a person culpable for criminal behavior and when is he not culpable?

Rob,

I can see what you are trying to get at, but it is somehow more comforting to me to be able to identify that a person is "troubled" in an incident like this than to find that it is simply the act of a cold-hearted individual.   Of course, I do believe that anyone who is capable of calloused, cold hearted criminal behavior does have a mental health problem.  Certainly healthy people could not perpetrate the kind of painful acts we see.  That, of course, does not mean that every person who has mental health is going to be criminal.   Nor does it mean that every criminal behavior can and/or should be blamed on mental illness.  The case you cited on autism sounds like it might be another example of trying to escape personal responsibility.   

RdB

RdB, I don't disagree with the first part of what you're saying;  obviously this person was extremely troubled.  On the other hand, I'm not sure that I agree with your conclusion that "anyone who is capable of calloused, cold-hearted criminal behavior...has a mental health problem."    Certainly, that COULD be an explanation.  But I wonder where a theology of sin and total depravity fits in here.  Isn't it possible that our sinful nature can sometimes so harden us that individuals are led to commit heinous acts such as this?  That wouldn't make it a mental illness, though, would it?

 

And Mark, may I raise a hot-button question, by challenging your assumption that it's not relevant whether or not he was mentally ill, or black or anything else. 

Could it be that those qualities ARE relevant?  Is it at least a fair qustion to ask whether or not those with mental illnesses have a highter tendency to commit offenses than those without? And, I think that race may in fact BE relevant.  For example, if we see that one racial group is more likely to be locked up (as African Americans are) we see injustice.  Now, we have to ask why; are African Americans locked up with greater frequency because they commit a higher proportion of crimes?  Or because they are targeted more?  Or because they commit the sort of crimes that are more easily "caught"?  And, if we see, for example, that African Americans commit crimes at a higher rate, then again, we ask why?  Is it a system of broken families?  Poverty?  Some combination?  And if it's because they are targeted by police, then we can see that the injustice is found in law enforcement.  The same could be said about mental illness.  If we find that those with the forms of mental illness described are more prone to committ offenses, we ask why?  Inadequate access to healthcare?  Unawarenes of the problem on a broader level? 

It seems to me that seeking justice (and by that, I mean broad-based, biblical justice -- "shalom") demands that we at least ask these questiosn if we want to address them.

Guide

Rob, I agree with you. I wrote, "Whether or not Dantzler had a mental illness is no more relevant to this situation than the fact that he was African-American. In fact, people with mental illnesses are more likely to be victims of crime than the general population, and less likely to be perpetrators of crime."

I could have stated this more clearly. Let's try again. Legal and illegal drug use, mental health status, ethnicity, age, marital status, upbringing, and many more factors need to be considered as authorities examine why Dantzler commited these crimes. My concern is that the media, society leaders, and many people in general often home in on just one of these factors, mental health status, and assume that if a person had a serious mental illness that factor alone explains why someone commits a serious crime.

You point out rightly that justice issues demand a much broader examination than simply looking at one individual. Just as the rate of inceration of African Americans is higher than that of the general population, so also the rate of incarceration of people with severe mental illnesses. One study says what I have read many other places as well, "The increased duration of incarceration associated with homelessness and co-occurring severe mental disorders and substance-related disorders suggests that jails are de facto assuming responsibility for a population whose needs span multiple service delivery systems." Of course, I'm not saying that being African American is the same as having a severe mental illness. I, like you, think that our society needs to examine why so many people from both groups are ending up in jail.

To back up my statement that peple with mental illnesses are more likely to be victims of cime than the general population, here are the sad conclusions of one study:

More than one quarter of persons with SMI [severe mental illnesses] had been victims of a violent crime in the past year, a rate more than 11 times higher than the general population rates even after controlling for demographic differences between the 2 samples (P<.001). The annual incidence of violent crime in the SMI sample (168.2 incidents per 1000 persons) is more than 4 times higher than the general population rates (39.9 incidents per 1000 persons) (P<.001). Depending on the type of violent crime (rape/sexual assault, robbery, assault, and their subcategories), prevalence was 6 to 23 times greater among persons with SMI than among the general population.

I have not kept up on all the articles written about Dantzler's rampage, but those that I have read in my local newspaper, The Grand Rapids Press, seem to have kept a broad picture and not zeroed in on Dantzler's diagnosis of bi-polar disorder as THE explanation for his actions. I hope this more appropriate perspective on mental illness and crime can be come a trend.

Mark -- now I see what you're saying. Thanks for clarifying!