Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Should Mentally Ill Veterans Be Armed?

Right, so you read the words "mentally ill veterans" and you're thinking of a man who picked up a loathsome infection and ran a temperature of 108 for three days and was "saved" with a battery of antibiotics that could have killed a healthy man, and was released from a hospital not because there was any chance of his getting a job but because no treatment could help him, and currently spends his days sitting on a street corner, behind a sign saying "Homeless Veteran Please Help," muttering nasty words into the filthy trench coat he pulls over his face most of the time. So you're thinking, "Of course mentally ill veterans should not be armed. What's to discuss?"

Now, please read Billy Hallowell's discussion of interpretations of this idea that use a somewhat broader idea of mental illness...


Incompetence to handle finances brings to mind a different picture...Grandpa can't remember whether he's already paid a bill or not, he can't remember who his children are, he loses things and accuses people of stealing them, and he's likely to point a gun at his visiting nurse if the guns aren't locked up. Right. If that were my grandfather, I'd definitely want to disarm him.

But then they start talking about PTSD? What, exactly, are they talking about? There's a tremendous range of things that could be called PTSD. Most adults, veterans or others, have some traumatic memories. Most of us have some reactions that fit somewhere on the spectrum of PTSD.

If at some time in the past you touched something red-hot and were burned, even though the burn wasn't serious and you don't consciously remember this "traumatic stress," your brain stored that memory as a traumatic stress. You can tell by the way your hand automatically jerks away from other things that appear to be red-hot. No reasonable psychiatrist would diagnose the "post-traumatic stress reaction" most of us have to fires as a "disorder," but that is, basically, what PTSD is; it becomes a "disorder" when a person reacts strongly enough to enough different things to interfere with his or her life and/or work.

So, who decides what interferes with what kind of life or work? I remember walking down a country road, one afternoon in autumn, with a Vietnam veteran who would usually be described as mentally healthy. He came home about the time I learned to read and has had reasonably successful businesses, some of which involved firearms, throughout my conscious life. He's old enough to retire, but has no such plans. Children, animals, and people with disabilities who've reentered the workforce via his businesses, adore him. Ordinarily the only post-traumatic stress reaction he shows is that he persists in thinking he's horribly disfigured (most people have to look to see scars on his face). He had been picking up nuts at the Cat Sanctuary, and seemed to have enjoyed the afternoon.

Then a big black walnut dropped from a tree onto the roof of a car parked beside the road. The man reached out and shoved me off the road, leaped out in front, and drew a pistol, all at once, while yelling, "What was that?!" Without thinking, he had reacted to what sounded like sniper fire the way he was trained in Vietnam.

He did not actually fire the pistol. He saw the walnut rolling off the car, replaced the pistol in its holster, and turned back with a sheepish grin to make sure I'd climbed safely out of the ditch. This is a post-traumatic stress reaction that I would say is definitely not a "disorder." (He does not react this way when he knows people are hunting or shooting at targets.)

But some people, whose own traumatic stresses may be different from most of ours, have rushed to classify all sorts of things as PTSD. Basically, any precaution you have learned to take--with or without any stress more "traumatic" than having been told that it was a good idea--that someone else hasn't learned to take, is what that person may describe as PTSD (if that person is the type who likes to project psychiatric labels into ordinary life).

Some things I've done that some people have seriously told me they thought indicated PTSD: Wearing a seat belt. Locking car doors in the country. Stepping back when a senile patient with a contagious disease tried to hug my neck. Insisting on driving after a friend who'd had a couple of beers swerved over the white line. Covering my eyes when someone snapped on a light in a dark room. I am not making these up.

Blaze readers have recently been discussing the emergence of new psychiatric labels for toddlers' temper tantrums. There are in fact some forms of brain damage that make it hard for people to control their emotional reactions, and may produce violent insanity. Some people with these conditions are violent children. Presumably they do have unusually violent temper tantrums. But how exactly are we to tell whether a howling, head-banging toddler has brain damage, or is participating in a war of nerves with some adult who has been known to back down when s/he becomes afraid that Junior will really hurt himself? Answer: without prolonged, thorough, and professional observation, we can't.

Then there are all the old familiar labels...anxiety, depression, hostility, confusion, memory loss. We all feel worried, sad, angry, confused, and forgetful at some time or other; in order to use these terms as a legal basis for anything, we need very clear, objective, rigid definitions for the psychiatric conditions that admit no confusion with the mood swings sane, competent people have. And no society has ever yet been able to agree on such definitions.

Of course people with serious mental illnesses like Alzheimer's Disease, schizophrenia, or "Prozac Dementia," need protection from themselves as much as the rest of us need protection from them...but we need very clear, very specific, very rigid, and very narrow definitions of the kind of "mental illness" that justifies any restriction on anybody's behavior. "A danger to self or others, in the judgment of a physician" is not enough--it can too easily mean "Embarrasses relatives" or "Annoys the physician, who wants to teach him or her a lesson" or, as in that Charles Bronson movie I watched at someone's house last week, "It's easier to lock up the grieving father than it is to track down the man who murdered his family."