Philosophy, Mental Illness, and Mass Shootings

This post is a part of our Bioethics in the News seriesBioethics in the News logo

By Robyn Bluhm, PhD

Over the past month, mass shootings have occurred in Gilroy, CA, in Chicago, in El Paso, and in Dayton. Most recently, the FBI has arrested a man in Las Vegas who had been planning a shooting spree. It’s common, after such a shooting occurs, to speculate about the mental health of the shooter. In a way, this is understandable: we cannot help but feel that anyone who could do such a thing is not mentally well. We can’t imagine what it would be like to be someone who is capable of meticulously planning and carrying out a mass killing like the one in Charleston, or Parkland, or Sandy Hook, or Pittsburgh, or Las Vegas, or so very many other places in the United States.

It’s true that some of the people who have become mass shooters have been diagnosed with a serious mental illness. But there are many reasons to reject the narrative of the mentally ill mass shooter. For one thing, it does not really fit the facts: the relationship between mental illness and mass shootings is murky at best. For another, it does a grave disservice to people who have a mental illness. As Devan Stahl has shown, associating mass shooting with mental illness stigmatizes people living with mental health conditions, who already face significant stigma.

159657156_d966a57a47_b

Image description: multiple rifle-style gun are shown laying on a green surface. Image source: Phanatic/Flickr Creative Commons

Mental illness stigma is a complex phenomenon reflecting multiple beliefs. Research has shown that people tend to view those with mental illness as dangerous and unpredictable. Biological explanations of mental illness, in particular, can lead people to think that those with mental illness are fundamentally different from those who do not have such a diagnosis. Again, these beliefs are not supported by data. But they do provide people with the comforting sense that there is an explanation for mass shootings. Notably, it’s an “internal” explanation that focuses on the shooter himself, rather than on broader social and policy issues relevant to the phenomenon. And for some, that fact, too, is comforting.

How philosophy can help us think about mass shootings and mental illness

But, I think, there is another way of thinking about the link between mental illnesses and mass shootings that may actually be helpful. Rather than focusing on whether individual mass shooters (or the majority of mass shooters) are mentally ill, we can think about the similarity between mass shootings and (some) kinds of mental illness. The philosopher Ian Hacking has written about the phenomena of transient mental illness, by which he means: “an illness that appears at a time, in a place, and later fades away. It may spread from place to place and reappear from time to time. It may be selective for social class or gender, preferring poor women or rich men. I do not mean that it comes and goes in this or that patient, but that this type of madness exists only at certain times and places.”

Two aspects of his analysis may be useful here. First, he draws an analogy between these conditions and the concept of an ecological niche, which provides a place in which a species can thrive, whereas other places do not allow it to live at all.

Second, he emphasizes that categories of human beings are different from other categories: a tiger, for example, does not care whether we classify her as a tiger, whereas human beings often care deeply about how we are categorized. Because of this, categories of human beings are prone to what Hacking calls “looping effects.” He means that people and the categories into which they put them interact with and change each other. Once a category is “out there” in the world, people may come to identify with it and behave accordingly. During the 1980s, for example, mental health professionals began to see increasing numbers of people with multiple personality disorder, in part as a result of numerous books, televisions shows, and media stories that described this phenomenon. But groups of people also behave in ways that change the characteristics associated with a category. Over time, people who were diagnosed with multiple personality disorder began to exhibit more, and more differentiated, personalities.

Hacking’s analysis is useful even if we don’t think that “being a mass shooter” is a form of mental illness. (It’s also worth noting that even those who think that mass shootings are caused by mental illness don’t think that “being a mass shooter” is a kind of mental illness.) In fact, multiple personality disorder is not recognized as an illness by mental health professionals. Instead, what matters is that it was a recognizable way to behave, or, in Hacking’s words, to be a person – and also that it came into being in a particular kind of social context that, somehow, fostered this way of being a person.

Thinking about mass shootings in Hacking’s terms may help us to understand them. For one thing, mass shooters occupy a very specific niche: they exist almost uniquely in the United States during the past few decades. Appeals to mental illness as a cause can’t explain this fact. Moreover, mass shootings tend to follow a pattern – now that the category exists, members of the group tend to behave according to its rules. But (and this is the other half of the looping effect), we should also be alert to ways that the rules of the category may be changing over time. Recent mass shootings, for example, have been linked to white supremacy. It also seems to be becoming more common for mass shooters to leave a manifesto.

Perhaps most importantly, Hacking gives us a way to think about preventing mass shootings. Blaming mass shootings on mental illness implies that we can do nothing about them, especially if we view people who have a mental illness as essentially different from those who don’t have one. If men who become mass shooters do so in a very particular niche, then the way forward is to destroy the niche which lets them thrive.

Robyn Bluhm photoRobyn Bluhm, PhD, is an Associate Professor with a joint appointment in the Department of Philosophy and Lyman Briggs College. She is a co-editor of The Bloomsbury Companion to Philosophy of Psychiatry.

Join the discussion! Your comments and responses to this commentary are welcomed. The author will respond to all comments made by Thursday, August 29, 2019. With your participation, we hope to create discussions rich with insights from diverse perspectives.

You must provide your name and email address to leave a comment. Your email address will not be made public.

More Bioethics in the News from Dr. Bluhm: “Ask your doctor” – or just check Instagram?Antibiotics: No Clear CourseTo Floss or Not to Floss? That’s not the question

Click through to view references

Posted in Bioethics in the News, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Announcing the Fall 2019 Bioethics Brownbag & Webinar Series

Green brownbag/webinar iconThe Center for Ethics and Humanities in the Life Sciences at Michigan State University is proud to announce the 2019-2020 Bioethics Brownbag & Webinar Series. The series will begin on October 16, 2019. You are invited to join us in person or watch live online from anywhere in the world! Information about the fall series is listed below. Please visit our website for more details, including the full description and speaker bio for each event.

Fall 2019 Series Flyer

Oct 16 calendar iconSpinal Cord Injury: Everything You Wanted to Know But Were Afraid to Ask
Wednesday, October 16, 2019

There are many dimensions to a happy and healthy life, and everyone would agree that life is complicated. But when multiplied by a spinal cord injury (SCI), the complexity of life can be off the charts—what we used to take for granted becomes a monumental challenge. This talk with explore life with SCI from a first-person perspective.

Mark Van Linden, MSA, is President of Adversity Solutions LLC and a spinal cord injury patient since 2009.

Nov 13 calendar iconSpeaking for the Dying: Life-and-Death Decisions in Intensive Care
Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Seven in ten older Americans who require medical decisions in the final days of life lack capacity to make them. For many of us, our biggest life-and-death decisions—literally—will therefore be made by someone else. But how will they decide for us?

Susan P. Shapiro, PhD, is a Research Professor at the American Bar Foundation.

In person: These lectures will take place from 12:00-1:00 PM in C102 (Patenge Room) East Fee Hall on MSU’s East Lansing campus. Feel free to bring your lunch! Beverages and light snacks will be provided.

Online: Here are some instructions for your first time joining the webinar, or if you have attended or viewed them before, go to the meeting!

Can’t make it? Every lecture is recorded and posted for viewing in our archive. If you’d like to receive a reminder before each lecture, please subscribe to our mailing list.

Posted in Bioethics Events, Brownbag & Webinar Series, Center News, Outreach, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Students present research findings at 9th annual Mid-Michigan Symposium for Undergraduate Research Experiences

Michigan State University students Marissa Cortright and Emily Castillo presented a poster at the 9th annual Mid-Michigan Symposium for Undergraduate Research Experiences (Mid-SURE), held July 24 at Spartan Stadium. Their poster, “Perceived Invasiveness of Psychiatric Electroceutical Interventions as Treatment for Clinical Depression,” presented research from an ongoing NIH BRAIN Initiative grant related to the ethical concerns and attitudes toward the use of psychiatric electroceutical interventions (PEIs) in treatment resistant depression.

Castillo-Cortright-PEIs-MidSURE-2019

Image description: Emily Castillo (left) and Marissa Cortright (right) pose for a photo with their poster at Mid-SURE on July 24. Photo courtesy of Peggy Anderson.

Cortright and Castillo, who are both majoring in neuroscience, have been working with MSU faculty mentors Laura Cabrera, Robyn Bluhm, Aaron McCright, and Eric Achytes. Their poster specifically addressed the invasiveness of multiple PEIs­—electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), deep brain stimulation (DBS), and adaptive brain implants (ABI)—based on the analysis of semi-structured interviews with Michigan-based psychiatrists. Cortright and Castillo concluded that the results of the interview analysis “suggest that while physical features are key for assessments of invasiveness, psychological, emotional, and lifestyle effects also play an important role.”

Cortright and Castillo both enjoyed the experience of presenting at Mid-SURE. “It provided a positive and engaging environment to share my work on the project as well as develop my professional skills,” said Castillo, adding, “I left the day feeling inspired and excited to keep working on a topic that is not only important me, but relevant and meaningful to many others.”

With attendees and presenters from many institutions and disciplines, Mid-SURE provided an opportunity to share research and network with a wide variety of individuals. “Many people were excited to learn about the PEIs and the potential to help lots of patients with treatment resistant depression,” said Cortright. “I learned that many people were interested in other segments of our project, and were anticipating the further research and results. I also learned that many people had no idea that PEIs even existed, and were extremely interested in the psychiatrist perspective on these therapies.”

“By sharing the research findings, I learned how different backgrounds can influence how data is interpreted across different disciplines,” said Castillo. “For example, I had an interesting conversation with a chemist who was curious about how the use of magnets or electrical stimulation can alter the chemical balance of the brain and how that relates to invasiveness. I thought this was an interesting question and enjoyed learning about how he interpreted the data coming from a chemistry background.”

Castillo continued: “My interactions with the other students and professors sparked great conversations about the stigma surrounding PEIs and mental illness. It reminded me how critical this research is in educating the public and informing future guidelines and policies surrounding these treatments.”

As the second year of the project approaches, Cortright and Castillo look forward to continuing the research and analysis. “I’m looking forward to looking deeper into the other neuroethical considerations and understanding how these topics vary between psychiatrists, patients, and the general public,” shared Castillo.

Please visit the project webpage to learn more about the NIH BRAIN Initiative grant “Is the Treatment Perceived to be Worse than the Disease?: Ethical Concerns and Attitudes towards Psychiatric Electroceutical Interventions,” led by Center Assistant Professor Dr. Laura Cabrera.

Posted in Center News, Research, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

International Neuroethics Society on “Neuroethics at 15”

Laura Cabrera photoThe International Neuroethics Society (INS) Emerging Issues Task Force has a new article in AJOB Neuroscience on “Neuroethics at 15: The Current and Future Environment for Neuroethics.” Center Assistant Professor Dr. Laura Cabrera is a member of the task force, which advises INS by providing expertise, analysis, and guidance for a number of different audiences.

Abstract: Neuroethics research and scholarship intersect with dynamic academic disciplines in science, engineering, and the humanities. On the occasion of the 15th anniversary of the formation of the International Neuroethics Society, we identify current and future topics for neuroethics and discuss the many social and political challenges that emerge from the converging dynamics of neurotechnologies and artificial intelligence. We also highlight the need for a global, transdisciplinary, and integrated community of researchers to address the challenges that are precipitated by this rapid sociotechnological transformation.

The full text is available online via Taylor & Francis Online (MSU Library or other institutional access may be required to view this article).

Posted in Articles, Center News, International, Publications, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , ,

New deep brain stimulation article from Dr. Cabrera in ‘World Neurosurgery’

Laura Cabrera photoCenter Assistant Professor Dr. Laura Cabrera is co-author of an article in the August 2019 issue of World Neurosurgery. In “Perspectives on the Earlier Use of Deep Brain Stimulation for Parkinson Disease from a Qualitative Study of U.S. Clinicians,” authors Dr. Cabrera, Dr. Harini Sarva (Weill Cornell Medical College), and Dr. Christos Sidiropoulos (Michigan State University Department of Neurology & Ophthalmology) share the results of Michigan-based clinician interviews about the use of deep brain stimulation (DBS) therapy in people with Parkinson’s disease. They conclude that there is a wide variation in clinicians’ parameters for when they suggest DBS as a treatment option for their patients.

The full text is available online via Science Direct (MSU Library or other institutional access may be required to view this article).

Posted in Articles, Center News, Publications, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , ,

New health care justice article from Dr. Fleck in ‘Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics’

Leonard Fleck photoCenter Acting Director and Professor Dr. Leonard Fleck has an article in the July 2019 issue of Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics. “Precision QALYs, Precisely Unjust” addresses issues of health care justice and cost effectiveness.

Abstract: Warwick Heale has recently defended the notion of individualized and personalized Quality-Adjusted Life Years (QALYs) in connection with health care resource allocation decisions. Ordinarily, QALYs are used to make allocation decisions at the population level. If a health care intervention costs £100,000 and generally yields only two years of survival, the cost per QALY gained will be £50,000, far in excess of the £30,000 limit per QALY judged an acceptable use of resources within the National Health Service in the United Kingdom. However, if we know with medical certainty that a patient will gain four extra years of life from that intervention, the cost per QALY will be £25,000. Heale argues fairness and social utility require such a patient to receive that treatment, even though all others in the cohort of that patient might be denied that treatment (and lose two years of potential life). Likewise, Heale argues that personal commitments of an individual (religious or otherwise), that determine how they value a life-year with some medical intervention, ought to be used to determine the value of a QALY for them. I argue that if Heale’s proposals were put into practice, the result would often be greater injustice. In brief, requirements for the just allocation of health care resources are more complex than pure cost-effectiveness analysis would allow.

The full text is available online via Cambridge University Press (MSU Library or other institutional access may be required to view this article).

Posted in Articles, Center News, Publications, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , ,

The Burden of Serving: Who Benefits?

Bioethics in the News logoThis post is a part of our Bioethics in the News series

By Karen Kelly-Blake, PhD

“We overworked, underpaid, and we underprivileged
They love us, they love us (Why?)
Because we feed the village”

– Killer Mike of Run the Jewels
“Lie, Cheat, Steal,” Run the Jewels 2 (2014)

In the United States, persons of color suffer disproportionately from a host of health care disparities related to racism, discrimination, lack of access, and undertreatment. When considering this disproportionate suffering, it is relevant to note the impact of the current physician shortage. That shortage is especially acute for underrepresented in medicine (URiM) physicians. Moreover, it is equally salient to recognize that URiM physicians provide care for underserved populations at levels disproportionate to their professional representation. There is a powerful narrative that a diverse and representative medical workforce, one reflecting general population characteristics, can effectively address access issues, increase satisfaction, and ultimately improve health outcomes. It seems reasonable to surmise that shared concordant characteristics (e.g. race/ethnicity, language, gender, geographic location, etc.) between patients and physicians might lead to improved communication and satisfaction in the clinical setting. Alsan et al. found that black patients paired with black physicians were more likely to agree to preventive screening, leading the authors to conclude that the racial/ethnic concordance between patient and physician was a significant factor for the observed increase in screening adherence. Kelly-Blake et al. found that the most mentioned rationales for increasing patient-physician concordance were patient-physician relationship and service commitment to care for the underserved.

A 2001 IOM (now the National Academy of Medicine) report warned that “we must be vigilant against the potentially pernicious effects of creating the expectation that minority physicians are being trained solely to provide health care services to minority patients or to research minority health issues.” It is now 2019 – nearly 20 years on – and so it seems a good time to revisit that prudent caution. Have we heeded the IOM’s prescient warning? I invite you to join me for a brief thought experiment. Suppose we made the profession of medicine responsible for caring for our most vulnerable—the sickest sick and poorest poor? Imagine that all patient panels included a significant number of homeless, poor, mentally ill, and uninsured. Imagine an equal, fair, and just distribution of medical care service to the underserved. The described distribution would lighten the service expectation on URiM physicians. We know that URiM physicians bear a disproportionate burden of providing care for the most vulnerable patients in the most challenging resource poor environments. It’s not unreasonable to imagine how such a burden might substantially constrain their ability to meet quality care metrics for reimbursement. Moreover, as we move from volume to value for reimbursement, for those URiM physicians who carry comparably higher educational loan debt and work to a greater degree than their white counterparts in resource poor communities with the sickest sick, the challenge of achieving measurable improvements in quality care would seem untenable.

The individual altruistic motivations of URiMs to “give back,” “make a difference,” and “help the community” are powerful. And indeed, those motivations are likely influenced by “community” expectations that people will return “home” to practice. Certainly, URiMs have valuable insider experiential knowledge about navigating the challenging, socially-layered U.S. landscape. Those perspectives would undoubtedly bring an enhanced sociocultural perspective to the clinical encounter. Community expectations align with similar sentiments. Individuals coming from underserved communities who desire to become a physician are often supported, encouraged and, yes, expected to come back to serve in the community. The community understandably holds out hope that someone from the neighborhood will come back and do good work for the community. While understandable, is such a community expectation fair?

guardian-angel-2704181_1280

Image description: an individual with angel wings wearing blue surgical scrubs, a face mask covering their mouth, a cap, and glasses is standing with their arms crossed in front of a neutral background. They have a stethoscope around their neck. Image source: Sathish Kumar Periyasamy from Pixabay.

Desire to serve and to give back are laudable and admirable virtues, but is the “narrative of service” subtext disproportionately and perhaps unfairly limiting URiM potential professional opportunities? In our desire to have URiMs serve the underserved as physicians, are we paradoxically denying them opportunities to serve the profession of medicine as Chairs of Departments, Deans of Medical Schools, Chief Executive Officers of Hospitals, or Heads of NIH? Are we saying, “welcome to the house of medicine, but we need you to work in the basement kitchen”? If URiM have become the workhorses of medicine, who then is provided the opportunity to become the stallions and thoroughbreds? White medical student and physician counterparts do not receive the same targeted messaging about service commitment.

Research has shown that higher numbers of primary care physicians lead to better health and decreased mortality. Despite the call and the need for more primary care physicians, medical students are not choosing primary care specialties. Mona Signer, CEO of The Match, suggests that income is a factor because choosing a non-primary care specialty means a higher paycheck. The highest paying specialties remain overwhelmingly white and male. Who then is allowed the unfettered freedom to make the non-primary care specialty choice? Who gets to have access to opportunities untied to community and societal expectations? The burden of serving exhausts URiM talent and expertise. So, who reaps the benefits? If the argument is that: 1) society benefits from more primary care physicians in underserved areas, especially critical in rural areas, 2) medical schools benefit by meeting more stringent LCME accreditation requirements for student diversity, and 3) patients benefit by having physicians in their community that look like and sound like them, then undertaking strategies to ensure a broadly representative medical workforce is indeed a national priority. But, if the argument is that URiM value is to “serve the underserved” then the IOM warning has indeed been ignored. Racial congruity alone is insufficient to address the disparities gap in U.S. health care, and like-to-like patient-physician matching may dangerously and perversely heighten discrimination against URiM physicians.

URiM should not be selectively steered, based solely on assumptions of their background, to pursue a particular medical career pathway. The healthcare workforce should reflect the nation’s population and equally, it is still fair and just to question why we are channeling URiMs to do work not expected of the entire medical workforce. How might we ensure equity of healthcare work practice? Ensuring such equity is a moral obligation and the right thing to do. Professional fairness and responsibility within medicine mandate that the medical workforce equitably and fairly assume shared responsibility for meeting the healthcare needs of the underserved. Continuing an expectation of burdening the already overburdened is not just health care.

Karen Kelly-Blake photoKaren Kelly-Blake, PhD, is an Associate Professor in the Center for Ethics and Humanities in the Life Sciences and the Department of Medicine in the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine.

Join the discussion! Your comments and responses to this commentary are welcomed. The author will respond to all comments made by Thursday, August 1, 2019. With your participation, we hope to create discussions rich with insights from diverse perspectives.

You must provide your name and email address to leave a comment. Your email address will not be made public.

More Bioethics in the News from Dr. Kelly-Blake: Patient dumping: why are patients disposable?Incarcerated AND Sick: At Risk for Pain, Injury, and DeathWhite Horse, White Faces: The Decriminalization of Heroin AddictionRacism and the Public’s Health: Whose Lives Matter?Concussion in the NFL: A Case for Shared Decision-Making?

Click through to view references

Posted in Bioethics in the News, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,