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The Arizona Shootings, Mental Illness, and Human Responsibility

Updated on January 11, 2011

Possible Responses to the Shootings

As soon as I knew the basics about the recent, tragic shootings in Arizona, I could almost immediately hear the wheels spinning in the brains of political pundits. Here was a potential opportunity for gun control advocates to push their political agenda. Here was a chance to talk about the potentially tragic effects of political hate speech, and to press for a more civil dialogue between people who disagree with one another. Here was one more example of what can happen in a society where people are bombarded with violent imagery, and where violence is often seen as a solution to problems.

Those are all worthy topics of discussion. To me, however, this was primarily just one more case of a mentally disturbed person who went over the edge. As with the Virginia Tech shooting a few years ago, there were plenty of signs that this man was severely disturbed. No one, however, was willing and/or able to take the actions necessary to get this man into effective treatment. Whether this was the fault of specific individuals or of a broken mental health system is another worthy topic for debate. Mental illness, however, is a very difficult problem no matter how you look at it.

About a month ago, I wrote the following as a blog post, and I decided to repost it here in response to this tragedy. It mostly focuses on a simple question: to what degree can the mentally ill be held responsible for their actions?

Distinctions Between Physical and Mental Illness

I am grateful to live in the twenty-first century. The modern world has its problems, but I would still take it over any other era in history. If I had to pick the number one advantage of living in modern times, it would have to be medical conditions. I shutter to think that until relatively recently, human beings had no antibiotics, modern painkillers, or access to immunization shots. The next time that you are in a doctor or dentist’s office, reflect on what your experience would be like before novocaine, anesthesia, or sterilized medical instruments.

It is also important to keep in mind, however, conditions faced by the mentally ill throughout history. Due to the same types of scientific limitations that hampered the treatment of physical illnesses, humankind throughout most of history had no tools for confronting problems in the mind. Often, spiritual explanations would be given, explaining odd behavior away as the result of some form of demon possession. More often, however, people would view mental illness in the same way that we often still do: odd behavior reflected personal defects of the “crazy” person.

With a few exceptions, when people have a physical illness or injury, they are not blamed or criticized for their condition. If a heavy smoker gets lung cancer, a person is addicted to drugs, or someone breaks his leg as a result of foolish behavior, then they may be given some of the blame. But even then, we tend to view those with physical ailments as victims who deserve our sympathy. With mental illness, however, the situation is often different. Problems in the brain, after all, are not so easily seen or detected. In addition, it can be difficult to determine when or if unusual behavior can be classified as a mental illness. If a person behaves strangely, the natural tendency is to see them as either an eccentric individual or a jerk. We are, therefore, holding them responsible for this behavior, and we see them as having some personality or character flaws, not an illness.

The brain, even though it is obviously a biological organ, is not viewed in the same manner as the lungs, liver, or intestines. The brain, after all, is the tool that we use to perform tasks and make decisions, so it is viewed as an organ that is under our control. Few believe that we can control the functioning of our other organs in the same manner as our brains. So if our minds are not functioning normally, then it must be our fault.

It is strange that people often talk about the “mind/body connection” as if it is a novel idea. Since the brain is such an integral part of the body, then why would it be surprising to find that stuff that is happening in our minds would have an impact on the functioning of every other organ or muscle? Also, it is inevitable that physical problems will have an impact on our thinking. So why do we so often view the concepts of “mind” and “body” as distinct realities when physiologically, they are so obviously integrated?

Mental Illness and Human Responsibility

This distinction between mind and body, a distinction that helps explain why we view physical and mental illness differently, largely originates in our religious belief systems. In every major religion that I know of, people are held responsible in some way for their decisions. We either face some sort of judgment day after death, or we are reincarnated into a form that is dictated by our behavior in the previous life. So the idea that the physiological condition of our brains plays a big part in dictating our behavior does not mesh well with traditional religions. If God(s) is just, and if brain injuries or chemical imbalances have a major impact on who we are and how we behave, then how can humans be held completely responsible for their actions? Some would say that humans have a “soul” that exists above and beyond our physical selves. By its nature, however, a soul is undetectable. In the meantime, there is a growing mountain of scientific data demonstrating how behavior can be traced to specific chemical processes in our brains. As time passes, it will be interesting to see how theologians confront this reality. In addition, these scientific discoveries will have growing legal and political implications, raising questions about assigning guilt for crimes or determining when someone is entitled to disability benefits. Centuries of assumptions about human responsibility seem to hang in the balance.

In the end, it is important to recognize that the mental health of all humans can be placed on a continuum. Few, if anyone, can be classified as either fully sane or insane. Since we all engage in unhealthy thought processes and behaviors that are related to the physiological makeup of our minds, our upbringing, or traumatic experiences in our past, it is theoretically possible to blame everything that we do on elements beyond our control. Obviously, this would be both impractical and, I would argue, unjust. I find it highly unlikely that human choice is a complete illusion, and there are plenty of cases of people who have been able to overcome their mental health issues. But in some cases, certain individuals have clearly crossed a line and reached a point where they are no longer truly responsible for their behavior. So where exactly is that line? I suspect that psychologists, theologians, neuroscientists, philosophers, lawyers and all thoughtful people everywhere will be wrestling with that question for centuries to come.


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    • Freeway Flyer profile image

      Paul Swendson 7 years ago

      I don't know. I think that it's one of the most complicated problems that we have. Hopefully, over time, available therapies will be developed. But even then, who is going to define "normal."

    • christopheranton profile image

      Christopher Antony Meade 7 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      What you say is very astute.

      There are physical differences in the brains of sociopaths which make them lack empathy. Although they still may know that their actions are bad, they are incapable of feeling real guilt.

      How should we deal with those people?