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'Deinstitutionalization': Mass Murder and Untreated Madness

The network news coverage of the recent shooting rampage in Aurora, Colorado, seemingly asserted that we should be surprised by the background of the alleged killer: Phi Beta Kappa graduate of University of California, Riverside, and until recently, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Colorado medical school. There isn’t any reason to be surprised: there is a very strong relationship between severe mental illness and murder, and another strong relationship between mental illness and intelligence.

As my new book points out, for centuries the connection between mental illness and violence was considered sufficiently obvious that the legal system provided various ways to hospitalize the severely mentally ill when they first provided clear indications that they were a hazard to themselves or others. Only in the 1960s and 1970s did our society decide that this system was unfair. It then embarked on a policy of “deinstitutionalization.” The idea: standards for long-term, involuntary commitment of the mentally ill should be just a bit less demanding than the standards of proof for criminal conviction.

Unsurprisingly, emptying out the mental hospitals and making it difficult to hospitalize people with serious mental illness problems meant that society as a whole became a bit more like a low-grade mental hospital. Supporters of gun control argue that we need stricter laws because ordinary, law-abiding people just “snap” and go on rampages. There are people who indeed snap and go on rampages (and not just with guns) -- but they are seldom ordinary. Often, they are people with long histories of mental illness who in 1960 would have been hospitalized before they killed someone. Gun control is in some respects an attempt to make all of America into a low-grade mental institution, where we don’t trust people with deadly weapons.

For those of you under 40 -- it used to be startling indeed to see people begging in the streets or obviously insane in public. Homelessness and various forms of urban degradation were byproducts of deinstitutionalization. A more ominous result: murder rates rose in response to this emptying out of the hospitals, and the poor solution was to increase the number of mentally ill murderers we sent to prison.

We are continuing down this path; one of the first mental hospitals built in the United States, Taunton State Hospital in Massachusetts, just narrowly dodged closure. As these mass murders demonstrate, we keep harvesting the bitter fruit of this well-intentioned belief of the 1960s that it should be very difficult to hospitalized a person with severe mental illness.

I mentioned earlier the connection between intelligence and mental illness. It has been noticed for a long time that schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are genetic. Your mother doesn’t drive you crazy; you inherit genes that increase your risk of developing these two mental illnesses. It also appears that creativity and intelligence are associated with these genes. We have many examples of very smart people whose descent into madness led to violence.

Think of the Unabomber, a Ph.D. in mathematics who taught at Berkeley. Or Professor Amy Bishop at the University of Alabama, accused of not only mass murder in her department, but also of the murder of her brother many years before.  Or Professor Ernesto Bustamante at the University of Idaho, whose mental illness led him to murder and suicide. Or Cynthia Clinkingbeard, an endocrinologist who lost her medical license because of bipolar disorder problems, and pretty well blew her chance of winning the Democratic nomination for Congress in my district because of a crazy incident involving a pistol and Staples. I can supply dozens more examples.