Is Mental Illness the Answer?

After the Uvalde shootings that killed nineteen students and twoteachers, there has been no let-up in related massacres around the U.S. So far this year there have been more than 240 mass shootings with 256 killed and 1010 injured. Along with pleas for gun control have come urgent demands for dealing with mental illness held responsible for much of the carnage. How else explain the unceasing violence?

But is that too easy and comforting an explanation? We are told the distraught killer did not really know what he was doing. He was prey to some force beyond his control. Submit him to some mental rehabilitation, and he can recover from his illness and achieve normality.

That assumes he wants to recover and criminality is not his normal being. Take the recent incident in the New York City subway when an aggressive man pulled another passenger’s  hair and shoved her around the car. Senseless it seemed, but not so. The predator appeared to be enjoying himself. Violence maybe his pleasure and his pastime. The fact that not a single male in the car came to the victim’s defense can be partly attributed to cowardice but also to deference to mental illness. The poor fellow didn’t know what he was doing.

If such violence is to be equated with mental illness, what do we do with Russian ruler Josef Stalin, one of the greatest mass murderers of all time who clearly enjoyed killing and liked to observe the executions he ordered? It would have taken a bevy of psychiatrists to treat him, and whatever their conclusions, they would have all been murdered.

Yet he was arguably the most successful ruler of the last century and the most influential. Communism, Stalinist style, continued to spread after his death in 1953 as he had wanted and predicted. His hideously forced industrialization at the cost of several million Russian and Ukrainian lives gave him supreme powerand paved the way to victory in World War Two over the far better army of mass-killing Adolf Hitler. Along the way he outwitted such luminaries as Churchill and Roosevelt. He never met his match. Quite an accomplishment for mental illness.

The great psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud spent an often frustrating lifetime analyzing mental illness. In the end he concluded that psychoanalysis can only go so far. Ultimately,two instincts are permanently lodged in the human being – that of life or creativity and that of death or aggression. In perpetual conflict, the one advances civilization, the other destroys it. The individual chooses which to pursue – a Stalin of destruction or, say, a Gandhi of creativity. Illness plays no part.

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