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Turnbull’s anti lone wolf plan could alienate flock
Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull recently made a surprising announcement: the Government is considering accessing the mental health records of Australians suspected of terrorist activity. This is supposed to be a way of preventing so-called “lone wolf” attacks – such as in Nice, or Orlando – as apparently these horrific acts are primarily the result of mental health issues.
So why do I feel like our society just got that much more unsafe with this announcement?
Turnbull’s proposal is already a slippery slope – the ongoing trade-off between an individual’s rights and national security – but it’s made all the more treacherous by the slippery language being used by the PM. With little regard for the facts, or the impact, he’s casually suggesting that mental health issues somehow explain or account for otherwise bewildering acts of violence.
Turnbull explicitly suggests that these lone wolf attackers have attached themselves to “murderous ideology” because of their mental health issues. As a mental health advocate who’s worked in the sector for ten years, I’ve heard this argument before in many forms. It boils down to the assertion that horrific, antisocial violence can somehow be explained by two simple words: “mental illness”. This idea is appealing because it seems to make sense of the senseless. But if you take a closer look, it doesn’t really explain much at all.
Mental health advocates get tired of trotting out these statistics, but it seems it’s time for a refresher. If you have a diagnosis, you are far more likely to be the victim of violence than a perpetrator. People using mental health services are no more violent than the general population; and on those rare occasions that people experiencing psychosis behave violently, it’s usually associated with other factors, including the type of person they were before the episode.
With this in mind, saying that mental illness “‘explains” violent acts is really no different to the far Right’s suggestion that terrorist acts are the result of simply being Muslim. You can be Muslim and also be a terrorist, but the first thing doesn’t explain the second thing, because the vast majority of Muslims are not terrorists. You can have a mental health diagnosis and also want to harm people, but again the first doesn’t explain the second, because the vast majority of people using mental health services do not want to harm people.
Blaming mental illness for violence is often a way of ignoring much harder questions about why our society produces people who don’t fit it. Or sometimes it’s a way of avoiding hard questions about the things our society holds dear. See for instance Barack Obama’s claim that more rigorous mental health checks will curb gun violence in America. Let’s be clear, America’s gun laws are crazy. America’s whole culture around guns is crazy. The logical outcome of that collective craziness is gun violence. You don’t get to cherry-pick certain individuals within that culture and call them the crazy ones. Australia does not have an issue with mass gun violence. Is that because we don’t have an issue with mental health? Hardly.
In 2014, on average, 7.8 people in Australia took their own lives each day. Many of them would have sought support but for whatever reason didn’t find anyone who could help.
If we are going to profile people for risk of violence, there are more sensible targets than mental health service users. Heterosexual men for instance, just in general. On average,one woman a week is killed by a partner or former partner in Australia. How about hacking the email accounts of all men with female partners? How would that suggestion go down?
We should give Turnbull the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he didn’t mean to imply that people with mental health issues are inherently violent. Perhaps he is simply exploring how mental health records could give us a vital insight into the thinking of potential suspects. There are several issues with this approach, however, some of which could genuinely endanger the lives of people in Australia.
The most likely outcome of a policy that breaks the sacred trust between someone and their mental health worker is that people stop seeking help. Imagine you’re already feeling paranoid, maybe you think someone’s out to get you – a feeling many can relate to after watching the nightly news for the past decade (or two, or three, or four). Are you going to talk to someone who’s scribbling notes that could quite possibly end up in the hands of a third party?
There are already safeguards in place for situations when mental health professionals think someone may be a danger to others. Putting the same powers in the hands of an intelligence agency is excessive, not least because mental health records are notoriously unreliable. They are a language of their own, skewed by the power imbalance of the doctor-patient relationship. Studies of Australia’s mental health review proceedings have found “a tendency to construe nearly all problematic or unconventional behaviour as bizarre, crazy, or symptomatic”, and that “even statements regarding factual information were more likely to be disbelieved, suspected, or discounted when they originated from patients”.
This only gets worse when it comes to the mental health treatment of people from diverse cultural and religious backgrounds, whose beliefs may not accord with a mainstream Australian understanding of “normal”. For instance, I have a colleague who accessed his psych notes after leaving hospital, and was horrified by what he read. The notes said, “patient seen performing a satanic ritual in an attempt to evoke the spirit of another recently deceased patient. Floridly psychotic and talking incomprehensible jibberish.” The ritual? A Māori prayer for a friend who had taken their own life in the hospital room the night before. The “incomprehensible jibberish”? His native tongue.
Since Turnbull wants us to talk about mental health and the safety of Australians, consider this. In 2014, on average, 7.8 people in Australia took their own lives each day. Many of them would have sought support in their time of need, but for whatever reason didn’t find anyone who could help.
The answers to this crisis are far from straightforward, but we know a few things are urgently needed. New attitudes about what it means to experience tough times; knowing that others aren’t going to judge or fear you for when you reach out for help; knowing that you can find someone to talk to who sees you first and foremost as a person carrying a great weight, not as a symptom (or a suspect).
As far as we understand, “lone wolf” operators are often outcasts, quite likely people with “unconventional behaviour”.
Here’s how we don’t solve that problem: by increasing the fearful rhetoric that pushes people to the margins. There is already enough fear and misinformation about mental health issues, and enough people on the margins.