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Can Political Rhetoric Drive a Mentally Ill Person to Violence?

Jan 11, 2011 – 3:24 PM
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Mara Gay

Mara Gay Contributor

Could a provocative political map really inspire someone struggling with mental illness to commit a violent act? Maybe, mental health experts say. But in those very rare cases, anything -- political or otherwise -- could just as easily set someone off.

"What sets people off is very individual. People who have significant mental problems can fixate on things," said Stephen Morse, a law, psychology and psychiatry professor at the University of Pennsylvania. But, he said, "it's almost impossible to predict those really rare, rare events."

Morse said it was "irresponsible" to blame politicians or pundits for the shooting in Arizona on Saturday, when U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was wounded in the head and six people were killed at a political rally in Tucson.

The anti-government ramblings of the accused gunman, 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner, set off a searing debate over whether the sometimes vitriolic tone of the country's politics may have played a role in the tragedy. Many wondered aloud or online whether the violence may have been a horrific byproduct of a heated political climate stoked by the impassioned commentary of political pundits.

But mental health experts say focusing on the political leanings of someone suffering from mental illness isn't all that useful. In fact, they say, it may be missing the point altogether.

"How someone with mental illness perceives politics or anything else should be treated separately from their inclination toward violence," Jeffrey Swanson, a professor at Duke University who studies violent behavior and schizophrenia, told AOL News in a phone interview today.

"The large majority of people with serious illness just don't engage in violent behavior," he said. "Different things have to come together for something like this to happen."

Morse agreed. And he said divisive political discourse alone -- whether in the form of a provocative map like the one Sarah Palin posted on her Facebook wall last year or something very different -- isn't likely to incite a violent rampage in someone suffering from psychological problems.

"You'd find a zillion people out there with similar risk factors who would never become violent," he said.

Trying to predict exactly what speech or rhetoric will set off someone with mental illness is a losing battle, one Swanson said is more likely to result in censorship than save lives.

"People with a thought disorder might respond in a really unreasonable way to all kinds of provocations," he said. "We have freedom of speech, so you can't say that people should exercise extreme caution on the slight chance that someone with mental illness might read into something in a certain way."

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It can be difficult, if not impossible, to know who will actually snap, so experts say the most effective way to prevent violence may be to provide better mental health care to everyone, but especially on college campuses.

"This is about beefing up those college mental health facilities and doing some prevention," said Carl Bell, director of the Institute for Juvenile Research at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Morse said that's not the only reason to offer people support.

"What we really need is a decent mental health care system in this country," he said. "Not because it would stop all violence from happening. But because it's the right thing to do."
Filed under: Nation, Health
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