For two decades, the politically correct have insisted that the severely mentally ill are no more dangerous than ordinary folks. You see this view emblazoned on subway posters, sponsored by groups like the Mental Health Association: "Mentally Ill Persons Make Good Neighbors." Tipper Gore put the idea front and center in her 1999 White House Conference on Mental Health.
Now along comes the New York Times, long the standard-bearer for this psychiatric mantra, to tell us that it just isn't true. In a series on "rampage killers" in April, the paper observed that "more than half" of the 100 multiple homicide killers it studied had "histories of serious mental health problems," including 48 with "some kind of formal diagnosis, often schizophrenia."
In fact, the series made clear the incidence of mental illness among the rampage killers was probably even higher. Most of the 100 killings the Times studied, drawn from an FBI database of multiple homicides not related to domestic disputes, gang wars, or robberies or other crimes, had been characterized by observers or cops as "senseless," "random," "sudden," or "crazy"—with crazy clearly being the operative word.
These rampage killings are also growing more frequent. From 1976 to 1989, the Times pointed out, such homicides remained relatively constant, at about 23 a year. Between 1990 and 1997, though, the number spiked up 48 percent, to an average of 34.
The Times series appeared only four months after the Surgeon General's Report on Mental Health noted that stigma against the mentally ill had heightened markedly in recent years, because "the public's perception of mental illness more frequently incorporated violent behavior." In truth, public perception has seen beyond political correctness: stigma has increased, because killings by the seriously mentally ill have increased. Everybody seems to know this now except mental health professionals and their advocacy groups.
To its credit, the Times also touched upon the key to reducing the number of rampage killings. "Of the 24 [killers] who had been prescribed psychiatric drugs," the paper noted, "14 had stopped taking them when they committed their crimes." Numerous studies have documented the relationship between not taking medication for schizophrenia or manic-depressive illness and the propensity to commit violent acts. Most New Yorkers remember Colin Ferguson and Andrew Goldstein as examples of this scenario. Seriously mentally ill individuals who take their medicine are not more dangerous than the general population; those who don't take it are much more dangerous.
In 1999, the New York Times unexpectedly—and commendably—endorsed Kendra's Law, enacted by the New York State Legislature last year. Kendra's Law helps keep mentally ill individuals on their meds by allowing courts to require their involuntary return to the hospital if they stop taking them. That the Times both endorsed this law and ran the series on rampage killers suggests a sea change in its perception of the seriously mentally ill. Perhaps rational thinking about irrational individuals is at last taking hold as the new century dawns.