Fearmongering toward the Mentally Ill is not a Solution to a Broken System

Rich Rifkin’s column on mental illness last week published in the Davis Enterprise, spawned an unusual amount of anger and backlash. This is not the first time that Mr. Rifkin has provoked this sort of response. However, I believe his writing suffers from some fatal fallacies that require a lengthy response. An examination of the complaints–three letters to the editor and a number of emails to myself shows that there are two basic problems with Mr. Rifkin’s column. First, a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of mental illness. And second, the use of insulting and demeaning jargon to describe mental illness.

The substance of Mr. Rifkin’s column begins on solid ground but begins to devolve in the middle when it comes to the crux of his argument. He asks:

“Why was it that Cho was allowed to walk around freely after a court determined he was dangerous? Why didn’t the authorities in Virginia put him in a mental hospital where he could be treated by psychiatrists?

Crazy people are not responsible for their behavior. The fault lies with the rest of us who treat the mentally ill as if they are normal adults who can freely make choices for themselves.

We should not only keep madmen from purchasing, we shouldn’t let them walk the streets without supervision.”

The problem he suggests goes back to deinstitutionalization of the 1960s. The problem with institutionalization was that it categorized people according to assumed characteristics and our limited understanding both for mental illness and how to best treat it. Moreover there have been increasing breakthroughs with medication that have allowed a number of previously institutionalized individuals to live mostly normal lives.

Furthermore, Mr. Rifkin is correct to point out flaws in the mental illness system as many of the individuals who wrote to the Davis Enterprise made quite clear.

Mr. Rifkin’s opinion aside, he then supports his opinion by making sweeping assertions that are backward in terms of both causation and induction. In short, he commits a fundamental fallacy in his reasoning.

“Closing down the loony bins didn’t get rid of psychotics. It largely has put them out on the streets, where many become homeless and others wind up in prisons.

His evidence?

The Department of Justice estimates that one in six inmates in the United States is mentally ill.

The National Resource and Training Center on Homelessness and Mental Illness has found that 20 to 25 percent of homeless people in America suffer from serious mental disorders.”

What he has cited is evidence that a sizable but still minority percentage of individuals who are in jail and homeless suffer from mental illness. While that may be true, the inverse is not necessarily true–that a sizable percentage of mentally ill end up homeless or jail. The reasoning becomes flawed because he views the phenomena through the outcome of a specific deterministic behavioral feature rather than by examining the entire population of those who suffer from mental illness to determine whether they end up in jail or on the streets. In short, he commits what social scientists would call the problem of selecting on the dependent variable (the outcome) rather than the independent variable (a cause). He has reversed causation in his analysis by undertaking his reasoning in this manner.

What the letters to the editor cite are the statistics that demonstrate that those who are mentally ill are rarely either dangerous or criminals. As one writer suggests:

“Fewer than one in 500 people with significant mental illness display violent behavior. “

As a NAMI-Yolo member suggests in a letter to the Davis Enterprise Tuesday:

“Most people who suffer from serious mental illness hurt themselves or become victims of crime. They lose jobs, family and friends. Very few become violent like Cho. Locked facilities are not a permanent solution. Medical parity, community support and education of the public about the biological causes of these illnesses and treatment that works is the answer.”

So it may be true that a sizable population in prisons suffer from mental illness that does not mean that most mentally ill people are dangerous. This is very poorly constructed logic on the part of Mr. Rifkin. And he uses this leap in logic to justify his very draconian policy approach.

“Many mental disorders are treatable. If a patient can function in society under medication, he should be allowed to do so. But, at the same time, he shouldn’t be treated like a regular adult. He should be kept under the supervision of mental health professionals for the rest of his life. That is for the good of the patient and society.”

Thus even for people who show no signs of actually being dangerous, they “shouldn’t be treated like a regular” adult.

The final point which I almost do not want to bring up because it will strike some as political correctness, but his use of language is both inappropriate, insulting, and ultimately counterproductive.

Crazy people are not responsible for their behavior.”

“Closing down the loony bins didn’t get rid of psychotics.”

Such jargons indicate a prejudicial mindset that Rifkin in other writing so deplores. Why does he choose such language? Does he think about mentally ill people as somehow being less than full people? He certainly wants to throw away their rights without the due process of law and without much more than prejudicial evidence to back it up. Perhaps it is easier to do that after de-humanizing them by providing such dismissive labels to describe people who suffer from mental illness.

Everyone involved in this unfortunate incident realizes that our social services system has failed many individuals who suffer from mental illness. There are fundamental changes that need to occur in order to better diagnose and get help for those in need. What we do not need however is fearmongering and bigotry towards those who suffer from mental illness, because it is the last thing they need. Most of these people are no threat to anyone and are desperately in need of good quality care so that they can live as normal a quality of life as possible.

—Doug Paul Davis reporting

Author

  • David Greenwald

    Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

Categories:

Social Services/Issues

116 comments

  1. this is just typical of Rifkin, his compadre, Dunning, and the Enterprise generally

    classic provincial Davis snarky superiority, and the use of rhetoric designed to inflame people against a vulnerable population of people

    curious that you underemphasized the elitism here, people like Rifkin know best and mentally disordered people should be dealt with as he prescribes

    more substantively, though, Rifkin, and some of the letter writers, fail to understand one of the basic reasons why the mentally disordered people who do find themselves in the criminal justice system end up there

    from my experience, some mentally disordered people have serious impulse control problems, and find themselves in situations with insufficient care and treatment, where they eventually act out, treatment that they, and their families, would be perfectly willing to accept it it were provided

    furthermore, Rifkin plays upon the misunderstanding that mentally disordered people cannot be held involuntarily if they become a danger to themselves or others

    this is manifestly untrue, I used to serve as a hearing officer for 5250 hearings in Sacramento County, where I decided if a mentally disordered patient could be held for up to two weeks involuntarily as a danger to themselves or others

    furthermore, mentally disordered patients can also be administered medication against their will in these situations as well, again, after a hearing

    it’s called due process, in other words, and there is no reason why Rifkin is entitled to it, and mentally disordered people are not

    finally, what I discovered as a result of this experience is that many of these patients, as I have already mentioned, suffered from the lack of care after the expiration of their involuntary commitment, after being held for 17 days total (3 on the 5150 hold and 14 on the 5250 hold, and, in some instances, 90 more days) in a county facility, they were then put out on the street with inadequate care and supervision, which most would have accepted, because there was no funding for such programs

    how did I discover this? because the patients would be recycled through the emergency involuntary care facilities again and again, 17 days, out, back in the facility a couple of months later, 17 days, out . . you get the idea

    –Richard Estes

  2. this is just typical of Rifkin, his compadre, Dunning, and the Enterprise generally

    classic provincial Davis snarky superiority, and the use of rhetoric designed to inflame people against a vulnerable population of people

    curious that you underemphasized the elitism here, people like Rifkin know best and mentally disordered people should be dealt with as he prescribes

    more substantively, though, Rifkin, and some of the letter writers, fail to understand one of the basic reasons why the mentally disordered people who do find themselves in the criminal justice system end up there

    from my experience, some mentally disordered people have serious impulse control problems, and find themselves in situations with insufficient care and treatment, where they eventually act out, treatment that they, and their families, would be perfectly willing to accept it it were provided

    furthermore, Rifkin plays upon the misunderstanding that mentally disordered people cannot be held involuntarily if they become a danger to themselves or others

    this is manifestly untrue, I used to serve as a hearing officer for 5250 hearings in Sacramento County, where I decided if a mentally disordered patient could be held for up to two weeks involuntarily as a danger to themselves or others

    furthermore, mentally disordered patients can also be administered medication against their will in these situations as well, again, after a hearing

    it’s called due process, in other words, and there is no reason why Rifkin is entitled to it, and mentally disordered people are not

    finally, what I discovered as a result of this experience is that many of these patients, as I have already mentioned, suffered from the lack of care after the expiration of their involuntary commitment, after being held for 17 days total (3 on the 5150 hold and 14 on the 5250 hold, and, in some instances, 90 more days) in a county facility, they were then put out on the street with inadequate care and supervision, which most would have accepted, because there was no funding for such programs

    how did I discover this? because the patients would be recycled through the emergency involuntary care facilities again and again, 17 days, out, back in the facility a couple of months later, 17 days, out . . you get the idea

    –Richard Estes

  3. this is just typical of Rifkin, his compadre, Dunning, and the Enterprise generally

    classic provincial Davis snarky superiority, and the use of rhetoric designed to inflame people against a vulnerable population of people

    curious that you underemphasized the elitism here, people like Rifkin know best and mentally disordered people should be dealt with as he prescribes

    more substantively, though, Rifkin, and some of the letter writers, fail to understand one of the basic reasons why the mentally disordered people who do find themselves in the criminal justice system end up there

    from my experience, some mentally disordered people have serious impulse control problems, and find themselves in situations with insufficient care and treatment, where they eventually act out, treatment that they, and their families, would be perfectly willing to accept it it were provided

    furthermore, Rifkin plays upon the misunderstanding that mentally disordered people cannot be held involuntarily if they become a danger to themselves or others

    this is manifestly untrue, I used to serve as a hearing officer for 5250 hearings in Sacramento County, where I decided if a mentally disordered patient could be held for up to two weeks involuntarily as a danger to themselves or others

    furthermore, mentally disordered patients can also be administered medication against their will in these situations as well, again, after a hearing

    it’s called due process, in other words, and there is no reason why Rifkin is entitled to it, and mentally disordered people are not

    finally, what I discovered as a result of this experience is that many of these patients, as I have already mentioned, suffered from the lack of care after the expiration of their involuntary commitment, after being held for 17 days total (3 on the 5150 hold and 14 on the 5250 hold, and, in some instances, 90 more days) in a county facility, they were then put out on the street with inadequate care and supervision, which most would have accepted, because there was no funding for such programs

    how did I discover this? because the patients would be recycled through the emergency involuntary care facilities again and again, 17 days, out, back in the facility a couple of months later, 17 days, out . . you get the idea

    –Richard Estes

  4. this is just typical of Rifkin, his compadre, Dunning, and the Enterprise generally

    classic provincial Davis snarky superiority, and the use of rhetoric designed to inflame people against a vulnerable population of people

    curious that you underemphasized the elitism here, people like Rifkin know best and mentally disordered people should be dealt with as he prescribes

    more substantively, though, Rifkin, and some of the letter writers, fail to understand one of the basic reasons why the mentally disordered people who do find themselves in the criminal justice system end up there

    from my experience, some mentally disordered people have serious impulse control problems, and find themselves in situations with insufficient care and treatment, where they eventually act out, treatment that they, and their families, would be perfectly willing to accept it it were provided

    furthermore, Rifkin plays upon the misunderstanding that mentally disordered people cannot be held involuntarily if they become a danger to themselves or others

    this is manifestly untrue, I used to serve as a hearing officer for 5250 hearings in Sacramento County, where I decided if a mentally disordered patient could be held for up to two weeks involuntarily as a danger to themselves or others

    furthermore, mentally disordered patients can also be administered medication against their will in these situations as well, again, after a hearing

    it’s called due process, in other words, and there is no reason why Rifkin is entitled to it, and mentally disordered people are not

    finally, what I discovered as a result of this experience is that many of these patients, as I have already mentioned, suffered from the lack of care after the expiration of their involuntary commitment, after being held for 17 days total (3 on the 5150 hold and 14 on the 5250 hold, and, in some instances, 90 more days) in a county facility, they were then put out on the street with inadequate care and supervision, which most would have accepted, because there was no funding for such programs

    how did I discover this? because the patients would be recycled through the emergency involuntary care facilities again and again, 17 days, out, back in the facility a couple of months later, 17 days, out . . you get the idea

    –Richard Estes

  5. Mental Illness needs to be taken seriously, but appropriately.

    There are individuals here in Davis, one in particular, that fits the Cho’s profile – stalking and harrassment of women, threats of violence to themselves and others, ignoring explicit orders by the Court, etc. The concern is that nothing seems to happen to control their anti-social behaviour, until they go way over the edge and do actual physical harm. All the signs that this will eventually happen is there.

    However, most, close to all, people who I know who struggle with mental illness do not match this profile, but are struggling with other types of mental illness, but they obey laws or try to, hold down jobs or try to, have families or not. They are in their own quiet hell. Isolation and separation from family and community support would be devastating to these individuals and would not make the community any more secure. Compassion is plays a huge factor in helping these people. Fear has no place here.

  6. Mental Illness needs to be taken seriously, but appropriately.

    There are individuals here in Davis, one in particular, that fits the Cho’s profile – stalking and harrassment of women, threats of violence to themselves and others, ignoring explicit orders by the Court, etc. The concern is that nothing seems to happen to control their anti-social behaviour, until they go way over the edge and do actual physical harm. All the signs that this will eventually happen is there.

    However, most, close to all, people who I know who struggle with mental illness do not match this profile, but are struggling with other types of mental illness, but they obey laws or try to, hold down jobs or try to, have families or not. They are in their own quiet hell. Isolation and separation from family and community support would be devastating to these individuals and would not make the community any more secure. Compassion is plays a huge factor in helping these people. Fear has no place here.

  7. Mental Illness needs to be taken seriously, but appropriately.

    There are individuals here in Davis, one in particular, that fits the Cho’s profile – stalking and harrassment of women, threats of violence to themselves and others, ignoring explicit orders by the Court, etc. The concern is that nothing seems to happen to control their anti-social behaviour, until they go way over the edge and do actual physical harm. All the signs that this will eventually happen is there.

    However, most, close to all, people who I know who struggle with mental illness do not match this profile, but are struggling with other types of mental illness, but they obey laws or try to, hold down jobs or try to, have families or not. They are in their own quiet hell. Isolation and separation from family and community support would be devastating to these individuals and would not make the community any more secure. Compassion is plays a huge factor in helping these people. Fear has no place here.

  8. Mental Illness needs to be taken seriously, but appropriately.

    There are individuals here in Davis, one in particular, that fits the Cho’s profile – stalking and harrassment of women, threats of violence to themselves and others, ignoring explicit orders by the Court, etc. The concern is that nothing seems to happen to control their anti-social behaviour, until they go way over the edge and do actual physical harm. All the signs that this will eventually happen is there.

    However, most, close to all, people who I know who struggle with mental illness do not match this profile, but are struggling with other types of mental illness, but they obey laws or try to, hold down jobs or try to, have families or not. They are in their own quiet hell. Isolation and separation from family and community support would be devastating to these individuals and would not make the community any more secure. Compassion is plays a huge factor in helping these people. Fear has no place here.

  9. Stuff like this in the Enterprise is an embarrassment to our community. Rifkin can’t help himself(whose keeping a clinical eye on HIM?) but Debbie Davis should know better than to use such knowingly provocative material to “stimulate” its bored Enterprise readership in lieu of informative and interesting journalism.

  10. Stuff like this in the Enterprise is an embarrassment to our community. Rifkin can’t help himself(whose keeping a clinical eye on HIM?) but Debbie Davis should know better than to use such knowingly provocative material to “stimulate” its bored Enterprise readership in lieu of informative and interesting journalism.

  11. Stuff like this in the Enterprise is an embarrassment to our community. Rifkin can’t help himself(whose keeping a clinical eye on HIM?) but Debbie Davis should know better than to use such knowingly provocative material to “stimulate” its bored Enterprise readership in lieu of informative and interesting journalism.

  12. Stuff like this in the Enterprise is an embarrassment to our community. Rifkin can’t help himself(whose keeping a clinical eye on HIM?) but Debbie Davis should know better than to use such knowingly provocative material to “stimulate” its bored Enterprise readership in lieu of informative and interesting journalism.

  13. Yet one more reason why the Enterprise’s circulation is relatively small compared to the overall population of Davis . . . it’s not called “The Emptyprise” for nothing . . .

  14. Yet one more reason why the Enterprise’s circulation is relatively small compared to the overall population of Davis . . . it’s not called “The Emptyprise” for nothing . . .

  15. Yet one more reason why the Enterprise’s circulation is relatively small compared to the overall population of Davis . . . it’s not called “The Emptyprise” for nothing . . .

  16. Yet one more reason why the Enterprise’s circulation is relatively small compared to the overall population of Davis . . . it’s not called “The Emptyprise” for nothing . . .

  17. Rifkins column actually reveals what Debbie Davis thinks about those who suffer from mental illness.

    The fact that she allows a columnist to write such an ignorant column that misleads readers and feeds into the stereotypes speaks volumes.

    I’m glad we have The Vanguard.

  18. Rifkins column actually reveals what Debbie Davis thinks about those who suffer from mental illness.

    The fact that she allows a columnist to write such an ignorant column that misleads readers and feeds into the stereotypes speaks volumes.

    I’m glad we have The Vanguard.