February 2013 Bar Bulletin

Mental Illness Casts Disparaging Shadow and Light of Hope

By Robert W. Zierman


The short, gray days and long nights are now upon us. For those afflicted by seasonal affective disorder (SAD), there is a wide array of artificial sunlight options to help relieve depression.

Continuing to regard issues related to gray matter, let's take up the serious subject of mental illness.

1. December's mass shooting in Newtown, Con­necticut, was an incomprehensible tragedy executed by a deranged individual.1

2. Deranged individuals are inherently dangerous.

3. Society must take precautions to protect itself from deranged individuals.

The first statement stands on its own two feet. No one in their right mind would act out so gruesomely. The world in shock, horror and utter bewilderment is left with only one question: Why? Unfortunately, there are no answers.

The second statement that deranged individuals are inherently dangerous may or may not be true. This depends on how we define "deranged." Are all individuals diagnosed with mental illnesses deranged? Are some illnesses, like SAD, insufficient to be lent the classification of derangement? Is derangement a mental state akin to a delusion, which may occur only during an episode and is otherwise harmless to the individual and society?

It seems to me that before we go off half-cocked in a battle over gun rights, as a society we better have a clear understanding about the difference between derangement and mental illness before we seek to pursue the third statement's goal of taking precautionary measures.

Why? Henry David Thoreau states it most aptly: "For every thousand hacking at the leaves of evil, there is one striking at the root."

Reiterating, what's the difference between derangement and mental illness? Well, if A First-Rate Madness by Nassir Ghaemi, M.D.,2 is to be believed, Hitler most likely had a mental illness. But Dr. Ghaemi notes that Winston Churchill also had a mental illness. Of course, we know that these two leaders were at war with each other. Yet, Hitler and Churchill shared similar mental illnesses. Both were afflicted by forms of bipolar disorder.

Both Hitler and Churchill used attributes drawn from their respective mental illnesses to destroy. However, only Churchill dedicated himself to destroying evil. That's the difference!

A First-Rate Madness explores the minds of other leaders as well. According to Dr. Ghaemi, those who suffered from various forms of mental illness include: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, Mahatma Gandhi, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.

Dr. Ghaemi's purpose was not to besmirch these leaders, but to illustrate that "in times of crisis" the attributes of those with mental illness are actually far more beneficial than "normal" leaders such as George W. Bush, Tony Blair and Neville Chamberlain. Outside of a crisis, these other leaders are better suited to "keep the trains running on time."3

Taking all this into account, it seems the question to hone in on is: What are the triggers that cause derangement? And if we are going to be intellectually honest, this won't be played out solely in the political arena. Nor will it be played out solely in the scientific arena. Instead, it will be played out in both.

Like all law, we first need all the facts. To assure the veracity of these facts, we need science. We may or may not find that media, video games and easy access to guns are the root trigger of this evil. It could be the stigma of mental illness or any combination of these factors or perhaps even more. Whatever "it" is, bring on "its" evidence in a process unadulterated by politics.

Once the evidence is in, however, it's time for the scientists to step aside and let the politicians take over. This is why we have them. Individually and as an electorate, we have delegated to politicians the task of leading us with hard, well-balanced decisions after robust debate amongst each other. With full faith, we must assume this process will ultimately provide the proper means of identifying the causes that produce deranged individuals and a fair and balanced curtailing of their rights.4

Assuming we have sufficiently cabined the danger created by deranged individuals otherwise allowed to run amok, what about exculpating the mentally ill who have caused no harm and are already living in pain? Are we going to continue to exacerbate their problems by allowing the stigma of mental illness to continue?

Interestingly, there is a movement already afoot to destigmatize mental illness. This movement has a name: "Neurodiversity."

Neurodiversity appears to have emerged largely from high-functioning autistics employed in the technology sector. For both reasons of content and form, this now seems pre-ordained. The work in this industry requires an acute attention to detail. This required level of attention to detail is an attribute of autism. So, the content of technological work is well matched with the neurological attributes of those "on the [autistic] spectrum."

As to form, the nature of the technological industry through computer communication allows cohorts the very means to communicate amongst each other without the attendant risks of a face-to-face meeting. With this means of communication in place, it's not at all hard to surmise that people in the technology sector soon started to "talk" to each other about their problems and realized the prevalence of autism within their ranks.

This mental illness, perhaps otherwise remaining largely in the shadows, was given a chance to see the light of day. And once that happened, autism's positive attributes became more fully explored by those with its condition.

Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D., takes this idea further in Neurodiversity: Discovering the Extraordinary Gifts of Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia, and Other Brain Differences by exploring how other mental illnesses in their own best settings are allowed to exert their positive attributes.

Unfortunately, these attributes are going to be of little to no use to those not able to function at high levels. Without help, these people very well might find themselves on the street down and out.

Contrast that to our profession. Albeit begrudgingly, society looks up to lawyers and for the most part society's perception is correct. We are up. For the sake of both ourselves and for those unfortunates who find themselves kicked down both by a condition out of their control and its stigma, it's in our own and society's interest to delimit the sentiment so clearly identified in Don Henley's song "Dirty Laundry."

In all respects, it is wrong to: "kick 'em when they're up, kick 'em when they're down."5 This isn't just a moral issue. We don't want people who've been kicked around, particularly those who are mentally ill with nothing to lose, to kick back.

Robert W. Zierman is the principal attorney of Justice Smiles, pllc, a firm that primarily assists clients in resolving disputes with their neighbors. Zierman authors a blog on these topics at: http://www.boundarydisputelaw.com.

1 Hours before the Newtown shooting, a deranged individual in central China's Guangshan county within Henan province attacked a school with a knife, wounding 22 children and an adult.

2 Dr. Ghaemi is a professor of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine and directs the Mood Disorders Program at Tufts Medical Center in Boston.

3 Trains on time is not Dr. Ghaemi's reference. Instead, it originates from an assertion by Benito Mussolini to help legitimize his rule. In today's parlance, it simply means to keep things up and fully operational.

4 Anthony Burgess's 1962 novella, A Clockwork Orange, and the 1971 Stanley Kubrick film adaptation explore how a miscreant is physically re-educated in a sinisterly manner consistent with the method of training a Pavlovian dog, albeit negative reinforcement. This approach may be a viable option for someone destined to kill others and oneself. But this draconian approach of eliminating free will, if done proactively against the individual, would also illegitimize the legal fiction of "innocent until proven guilty."

5 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=46bBWBG9r2o


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