Why it’s a problem: This atrocious op-ed is what happens when political elites in cities like San Francisco attempt to justify and double down on bad policies that offer only one type of solution to problems they created in order to displace and incarcerate people. The author asserts that “[the perpetrator’s] severe mental illness — from which he was still suffering — played a role in his violent crime and made him a danger to the public” despite acknowledging that experts determined, just a week before the crime, that he “no longer met all of the six criteria necessary to be classified as an Offender with a Mental Health Disorder.” The author asserts that mental illness was to blame, despite cataloging a laundry list of failures by the state to provide safe housing and follow-up care. We can conclude that mental illness is not really to blame, but rather the individual, and the people and institutions around him that failed to provide for his needs.

The specious idea that mental illness causes people to commit violence falls apart under analysis, yet persists because it’s a convenient argument that people use to evade accountability. As the Yale psychiatrist and historian, Marco Ramos, has noted, “There is no evidence that psychiatrists have the magic power to stop people from committing violence.” Except in very rare cases, mental illness is not a biological entity like the rabies virus that infects people’s brains and changes their behaviors. It’s astounding how many people still talk about mental illness in this way. The fact, acknowledged in the article, that the vast majority of people with “severe mental illness” are not violent, reveals the illogic of statements like “mental illness caused so-and-so to do this.” If we take this illogic to its conclusion, it leads to the extreme fallacy that all violence (including all racism, all misogyny, all bad behavior) must be a symptom of mental illness. When people make these kinds of statements, they are being deliberately obtuse. It’s an attempt to avoid accountability and sow fear — notice how the author exploits the incident to demand “strong and swift action” — and to obscure the fact that cities like San Francisco offer only carceral solutions (including psychiatric coercion and incapacitation) to people whose basic needs aren’t being met, which is the main driver of violence in the city.

Even the alternative but equally ableist statement that “mental illness is a risk factor for violence” is incorrect, because it flips the causation around. What we define as mental illness is just a cluster of symptoms, so it would be more correct to say that when people are exhibiting mental illness, they are indicating that they are in distress. In fact, the key feature of mental illness is that the person is experiencing some level of distress related to their symptoms. If a person is hallucinating, but not bothered by their hallucinations, they shouldn’t be labeled mentally ill unless that is how they identify. Statements such as “mental illness is a risk factor for violence” are actually political statements that serve to victim blame instead of acknowledging how we as communities, as families, as partners, and individuals are often the cause of other people’s distress. How people respond to distress is infinitely variable. Obviously, some people in distress choose violence, but many people don’t. In any case, when people’s needs aren’t being met (which may include psychiatric care for some people), that is a harm that has occurred, and that’s where our focus for change needs to be.

Additional comment: I also don’t like how the author, a white person, is exploiting Asian trauma. The only time marginalized people matter to the media is when our pain can be instrumentalized for politics.

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