Inside Story America

Ari Ne’eman: Stop blaming the ‘other’

American autism rights activist talks to Al Jazeera about the role of mental illness in the US gun control debate.

Guns, Culture and Crime in the US – in a special three-part series, Inside Story Americas takes the debate on gun control to the American people. Are they as divided as their politicians?

Ari Ne’eman is an American autism rights activist who co-founded the Autistic Self Advocacy Network in 2006.

He talks to Al Jazeera’s Shihab Rattansi about the Newtown shooting and the role of mental illness in the US gun control debate. 

Ari Ne’eman: I think that it’s obvious there is a lot to be done on mental health policy in this country. Unfortunately, if you were to try and think of the single worst time to have that conversation, it would most likely be in association with violent crime and gun violence. The fact of the matter is people with psychiatric and neurological disabilities are no more likely to be committing violent crime than the general population. And when we look at mental health policy reform from the prism of violence, we end up with bad mental health policy.
Al Jazeera: But, are you suggesting that addressing mental illness and the problems of care have no role to play in the gun control debate or in the debate about mass gun shootings?
Ari: Well, I am suggesting that if we are talking about what drives this kind of violence, it’s not people with psychiatric disabilities. And, it’s certainly not the kind of proposals that have been put forward: the NRA talking about a national database of people with mental illness, the New York state legislature extending forced treatment law that many advocates find particularly concerning, putting more police officers in school and potentially furthering the school-to-prison pipeline.
What effect did the focus on Asperger’s syndrome have after the Newtown massacre?
Ari: Well, a number of folks reported from our membership an increase in discrimination. Many families reported that schools were now looking at their children with additional suspicion. People who had perhaps recently made the decision to come out of the closet about their diagnosis at work, or in their relationships, suddenly started to feel that may have been a mistake and that discrimination might be on the rise. One of [the] things that I found particularly concerning is that there was an effort on the part of some to try and say ‘well we don’t really need to have a conversation about gun violence in this country, all we need to do is have a conversation about people with psychiatric disabilities’. And, frankly, that’s not the case. If we look at the research and evidence, there is no relation between Asperser’s syndrome and violent crime. If we look at the broader scope of disability, say another diagnosis, psychiatric disability or mental illness, we find a similar lack of correlation. In fact, even when we look at the small subset of people with psychiatric disabilities who some studies have found to have an increased correlation with violent crime, that correlation disappears when we control for substance abuse. That’s actually one of the only things that does tend to correlate with violent behavior—a history of substance abuse, but not so much a mental illness or an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis.
Is there any correlation, for example between I think the study has just been done, between the availability of psychiatric beds and gun violence?
Ari: Absolutely no connection. This is important because many commentators in the aftermath of Newtown decided to blame the institutionalisation. One of great civil rights success stories in disability policy over the course of the last 30-40 years has been moving people with disabilities out of institutions and into the community. Tom Perez—the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights in the Obama administration—he said during his installation ceremony in 2009 that segregating people with disabilities in institutions is as wrong as segregating African American children in inferior schools.
President Obama also talked about Project AWARE and he described it as this: schools working with law enforcement and mental health agencies to ensure that those showing mental health strains can get help. Clearly, should law enforcement have a role when it comes to the delivery of mental health care do you think?
Ari: I think we have great police force in this country, but it runs into problems when we ask it [to] do things that they are not trained to do and frankly that police officers don’t want to do. Police officers aren’t mental health care professionals and they are not educators. Their interests and students’ interests are going to be better served by approaching the job of the police as law enforcement and the job of the school system as education and the job of the mental health system, which yes we do need to fund more effectively.
Why do you think then there is this focus on and this consensus on the issue of mental health care then after something like Newtown as opposed to other issues?
Ari: The gun lobby is powerful and the disability rights lobby is considerably less so. And that, I would say, describes a considerable portion of it. I mean, let’s be honest here – it is very difficult to have meaningful legislative action on some of the broader issues relating to gun violence. People would like to believe that this problem lies with some kind of ‘other’. You see this in lot of instances. When there is an instance of violent crime involving an African American or Hispanic youth, people start talking about gang violence. When there is an instance of violent crime involving Muslim Americans, people talk about terrorism. When the shooter is a Caucasian male people suddenly look to psychiatric or neurological disability because it’s some way of saying the problem isn’t here at home, the problem is over there with those kinds of people. That’s wrong. It also leads to terrible public policy.