Why it’s a problem: There is a lot of important context that is missing from this article. But firstly, it’s important to note the conflicting perspectives coming from the article, with the student’s mother attributing her son’s behavior to his medications, while the author implies that the student was in an active suicidal crisis, writing that “When people are in a suicidal crisis, they sometimes act in ways that are not recognizable to friends and family as the “real” them; it’s a medically observed feature of severe depression in some cases.”

Similarly, the student, while dismissing the idea that his mental illness was the reason for his behavior, signs his name as “a depressed suicidal person,” which contradicts his statement by emphasizing those identities.

Blaming suicidality and mental illness is not only stigmatizing, but it frustrates efforts to hold people accountable, because it is constantly being used as an excuse for people’s shitty behaviors. You can be sure that Dai’s legal team is going to try to point the blame at mental illness as the reason for the student’s behavior.

This brings up other important points. The author quotes Monica Gebel of the Levine Center to End Hate, who says, “What’s worrisome is that with thousands and thousands, even millions of students attending colleges, we don’t know who among them is properly caring for their mental health, whose needs are not being served and, unfortunately, until something like this happens, we have no indication of who is suffering.”

But that’s not true. Cornell is one of the many universities that does have a Student of Concern reporting page. The ostensible purpose of these precrime reporting tools is to catch people like Patrick Dai before they reach the point of crisis by using an arbitrary set of warning signs that include mental illness. But note that in this case like many others, it wasn’t the warning signs that were helpful in preventing further harm, it was acting on the explicit threats that were made by the student. These pseudoscientific lists of red flags only add more noise to the data on top of stigmatizing the millions of people who are neurodivergent or mentally ill who are not violent.

Now, we don’t know yet if Dai was previously reported to Cornell. For example, maybe Student Support & Advocacy Services had connected Dai with mental health care. But that only underscores the point that Dai was actively receiving care, and he still made these threats. So to attribute his behavior to “untreated mental illness” is factually incorrect.

One may also argue that Dai wasn’t receiving *effective* treatment. And that is something that needs to be discussed in the media, because it potentially underscores a point I’ve made elsewhere that mental health interventions are not effective tools for preventing violence. (In some cases they contribute to violence, and in many cases they actually cause further harm to the patient or make them feel worse.) Would Dai had behaved the way he did if he had been receiving a different medication? No one can reasonably argue for that counterfactual. (Note that not everyone “whose needs are not being served” is experiencing a mental health issue per se.)

The journalist reports how the student allegedly felt immediate remorse for his behavior, and supposedly that indicates that the behavior was the result of mental illness, as if nobody who is “sane” has ever acted impulsively, or said things that they regret, or behaved uncharacteristically.

The legal team is going to try to portray Dai’s behavior as if this was some sort of cry for help by a “troubled student.” Because of the political and antisemitic nature of the threat, however, we unequivocally need to reject that argument.

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