The Mental Health Bandwagon after Sandy Hook

I’m not a psychiatrist or a clinical psychologist, and I have no claim to expertise in the field. That said, as an amateur, I know more than most of my fellow amateurs, and I’ve been struck by particular aspects of the way that onlookers have talked about mental illness in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings.

Mental health is jostling for space alongside gun control in the headlines this week. The Christian Science Monitor: Sandy hook shooting glare illuminates cracks in mental health care. The St Louis Post-Dispatch: Mental Health a better focus than gun laws post-Newtown. I can’t remember mental health being so much a part of the discourse after the Aurora shooting, or after the Sikh Temple shooting in Wisconsin in August.

What do we know about Adam Lanza, the shooter at Sandy Hook? What do we know about his mental state? Fox News reported: ‘Ryan Lanza, 24, brother of gunman Adam Lanza, 20, tells authorities that his younger brother is autistic, or has Asperger syndrome and a “personality disorder.”  Neighbors described the younger man to ABC as “odd” and displaying characteristics associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder.’

Never mind the paucity of evidence of whether he has actually been affected by these conditions. As neuroscientist David Eagleman says in a thoughtful article, there is no known link between autism (including Asperger’s Syndrome) and premeditated violence; neither is there a known connection between obsessive compulsive disorder and premeditated violence. Eagleman doesn’t commit on the potential impact that the personality disorder, if it exists, may have had on Lanza and his behaviour.

I don’t feel qualified to comment on the difference between personality disorders and mental illnesses, and, it seems, even scholars have trouble: see Kendell in the British Journal of Psychiatry, 2002. I feel, however, that the answers sought by the grieving and shocked lie, at least partially, within this distinction.

One of the things we do know about mental illness, though, is that they are much less violent than people assume they are. In the UK, 34% of the general public think that someone with a mental illness is likely to be violent. But less than 1% of murders in the UK are random attacks by the mentally ill, and, according to another article in the British Journal of Psychiatry, 99.97% of those diagnosed with schizophrenia (the mental illness with the most realistic connection to violent behaviour) would not be convicted of serious violence in a given year. There’s a lot of work to be done on the public understanding of mental illness, and the desire to understand the shooting comes with the risk of shifting the blame onto a poorly understood and largely blameless group.

What Eagleman does say, rightly, is that “his behavior alone is sufficient evidence that something was abnormal about his brain.” I think that we all need to be careful about how we define and characterise “mental illness” in response to the shooting, and to avoid turning to mental illness as a way of preventing these incidents in the future, especially given the dire chances for substantial changes in gun law. If this happens in an insensitive way, the damage to the innocent population with mental health problems will likely far exceed the benefit in lives saved from premeditated violence.

This shooting has provoked so many to call for increased investment into mental health treatment and research, in the hope that we can avoid more bloodshed, and avoid the deaths of another 27 innocent schoolchildren and teachers. I don’t disagree with this. But I would contend that the millions of livelihoods and countless lives lost to schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, depression and other mental illnesses are equally powerful reasons for a call to action. We should be careful in associating mental illness with astonishing brutality or even simple criminality, and we should recognise that, as a society, we owe an unpaid debt to provide better for, and better understand, those among us with mental illnesses, and we owe that solely for their sake.

In Defence of ‘Misogyny Overheard’

A new Facebook group has been the source of controversy and discussion in the last few weeks. Bethan McKernan, a final year student at St. Anne’s College, Oxford, set up ‘Misogyny Overheard at Oxford University’ after being harassed by a group of male students at Camera, a local nightclub. The Facebook group is framed as a community for those who have “overheard, witnessed or experienced sexism directed at women” as a student at Oxford.

Some contributors have objected to the terms of the group as being too exclusive. Why, they ask, does this group deal solely with the prejudice and hatred faced by women at Oxford? Why not also   look to tackle “misandry”, defined as the hatred of men by women? I wanted to write to defend the terms of the group, while recognising the need to engage both men and women in the gender equality project. As a man, I’m wary of wading into Misogyny Overheard – I think it’s important for female students to have ownership of it – but I’d like to write in defence of it anyway.

One of the complaints raised about the terms of the group is that prejudice against men by women  is a problem too. Now, I agree that it is a problem: I think that some women (but, arguably, more men) are guilty of perpetuating a stereotype of conventional masculinity that is, I feel, counterproductive to the goals of the feminist movement. As Tony Porter articulated clearly in his 2010 TED talk, the box of conventional “manliness” into which men are expected to neatly fit works as a trap for men, and consequently will clearly influence the ways in which men relate to women. I feel there is a case to be made for a holistic approach to stereotyping in terms of gender, and examining our expectations of men in conjunction with promoting opportunities and outcomes for women.

However, I don’t think that this should take equal billing to fighting discrimination against women. I think it is permissible for the group to form a gender-specific safe space, simply because prejudice against women is undeniably worse in Oxford than prejudice against men. Women are more likely to be verbally and sexually harassed than men, and the growing number of contributions to the Facebook group demonstrate to some extent the frequency and grotesque creativity of these incidences. Women are also subject to more subconscious (I hope) prejudice and inequality: they are significantly under-represented in positions of leadership in common rooms and societies, and they are also less likely to excel in their examinations in a number of subjects.

With this in mind, it’s relatively uncontroversial to state that the experience of the average female student is likely to be less positive than the experience of the average male student. And the gap in these experiences is likely to be considerable. If you are a man studying at Oxford, you might experience some sort of hurtful gender-based experience, but it’s likely that it will be less frequent than that experienced by your female counterpart, and you’ll also be more likely to rise to a position of leadership and come away from Oxford with a first-class degree. When we decide how to tackle societies injustices and inequalities, we naturally have to prioritise those which are in most dire need of action, so as to concentrate our attentions and resources on them. It’s for this reason that misogyny needs to be addressed first.

It may also be worth exploring in more detail the intended purpose of the group. Some critics have suggested that the group should be a space for men to be able to express their experiences of misandry; that it doesn’t make sense for anti-misandry activists to establish their own group when they have (supposed) commonalities of experience and objective with Misogyny Overheard. This seems to make sense, right? Surely, you’re killing two birds with one stone. I would disagree. I think that the desire to rationalise and include more and more causes within a particular forum dilutes the impact that the forum has on its membership and readership.

I think that the positive impact of the group is twofold. Firstly, it allows women who have been exposed to misogyny to feel a sense of community an togetherness with other women who have had similar experiences. As with most anti-stigma campaigns, reading experiences similar to yours can help to dissipate the shame and confusion of such an incident and form it more into a positive sense of empowerment. Secondly, the hope is that both women and men who are less in tune with a sense of feminist justice, and maybe, even, the perpetrators of the misogyny themselves might stumble across the group and be encouraged to change their minds about what constitutes acceptable behaviour towards women.

Both of these outcomes wil necessarily be weakened if the scope of the group is made broader. While i don’t doubt the utility of a safe space for those who suffer from experiences of transphobia, homophobia, racism, disablism and, yes, even misandry, I do feel that the sense of community and commonality of the group is more effective in supporting the wellbeing of its members if its scope is more limited. I also feel that an external audience is less likely to be interested in paying attention to a generalist forum along the lines of ‘Discrimination Overheard at Oxford’ than one that is more targeted, pithy and relatable in its content.

There’s a certain group of men who are always keen to self-identify as the victim. To those men: you may be maligned, but there are members of your community whose experience is and will continue to be considerably worse. For now, at least, I’d recommend that you take a step back, listen, and do what you can to challenge the norms and behaviour that make misogyny acceptable. We can deal with your problems later.

Stanford vs Oxford

Ken Auletta’s great article in The New Yorker, asking whether Stanford’s close ties to Silicon Valley are to the detriment of  the University’s educational mission, made me think about the differences in values of universities separated by the Atlantic.

The most obvious contrast is the flexibility that the American  system affords to the average (undergraduate) student. High schoolers apply to a school, not to a program within that school, even though some students will apply to schools knowing which programs are strong within that institution. First- and second-year undergraduates can sample courses from different disciplines; essentially, they can explore, and make up their own mind about what intellectual direction is right for them.  After two years, they settle down, choosing a major, but with a little bit of diversity – they also get to keep working in a second, minor, discipline.

In the UK, however, we grant places to students who have chosen their discipline,  sometimes, if they do law or medicine, pigeon-holing them into a single career at the age of seventeen or eighteen. We allow them very little room to explore outside that subject, and it is often a struggle to change your degree course, meaning that if you make the wrong choice, there’s not a lot you can do except to start again.

The UK higher education sector is one, it seems, that is designed to produce scholars. Your tutors might have a cursory interest in your development as a human being, or your employability, but the courses are structured the same way as they might have been 500 years ago: those who get the most out of their degrees are those who go on to paid positions within the very same institutions. At no point in the last 200 years, as the intake of our universities has expanded and it has become a standard route for young people to prepare themselves for the workplace, has anyone sat down and had a meaningful conversation about what our universities are for.

Of course there is value in education for it’s own sake, and it would be sad to see our HEIs going down a utilitarian path. But my argument isn’t really about that.

My argument is about the permissibility of students making mistakes. The quote that really struck me from Auletta’s piece was a student’s academic adviser telling them the following in their first year: “I want you to have a messy career at Stanford. I want to see you try things, to discover the parts of yourself that you didn’t know existed.” This is the organising principle of the undergraduate experience at American universities: it is accepted, even expected, that you can dabble in philosophy and neuroscience before realising that what you really want to do is be a mechanical engineer, but keeping up the French on the side. In these institutions, it is not expected that you know on day one what your calling is; mis-steps and mistakes are all part of the game.

I can’t imagine anyone being instructed to have a “messy” time at Oxford. Here, you stay firmly within the narrow confines of your single (if you’re lucky, you get two) discipline, and it’s rare that you get much choice within that. The quality of your academic work is regulated tightly, and any qualities that makes you more broadly “employable” are gained from your experiences outside your degree.

I think that the flexibility inherent within the American system produces better graduates; it helps young people to grow and develop in ways that will make them more well-rounded, more comfortable with themselves and of greater benefit to the society and the economy that they will be working within. They will have the benefit of both the knowledge and the skills gained from time spent studying a number of different scholarly fields.

But, as well as producing better job-ready graduates, I think it would also, perhaps counter-intuitively, produce better scholars. Instead of students pigeon-holing themselves into a subject as early as 17, they will have time to shop around and discover for themselves the relative merits of their eventual chosen field. They will have gained a greater understanding of the priorities, methods and content of other fields, which will, eventually, make them more productive and effective in their contributions to scholarship.

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