Author Archives: andrewltoney

Watch Your Mouth: The Use of Language in Gun Control Debates

Just a few days after the addition of the Boston Marathon bombing as another wound in an ongoing tale of public violence in the United States, and following the recent defeat in Congress of a proposed expansion of background checks for gun transactions, President Obama is now focusing his efforts on enforcing executive actions requiring state agencies to release mental health records to the FBI. Federal law currently prevents individuals diagnosed with certain mental health issues to purchase firearms; the FBI uses information provided by states in order to enforce this legislation.  Prior to the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech, states voluntarily provided these records.  However, following the incident, new legislation was passed requiring states to provide the information or face significant cuts to criminal justice funding. Recently, the Obama administration, under executive order, began working to remove other barriers that might prevent states from releasing mental health records to the FBI.


Interestingly enough, this tune is quite different than that of only a couple of weeks ago, when, it was reported that Senate lawmakers were working quietly to develop legislation that would bring about comprehensive mental healthcare reform.  The legislation would provide more funding and development in the mental health care sector across the country, increasing the number of health care facilities, providing early intervention training, and increase Medicaid allotments for mental health care.  While lawmakers and mental health care lobbyists initially attempted to quietly distance the mental health legislation from discussions about gun control, recent events have made the connection inevitable.


Such a scenario begs larger questions about the language used in media reporting about mental health and violence, especially in the current popular dialogue over gun control reform in the wake of increasingly frequent mass shootings.  If one were to read through the headlines published about the spree killers involved in the shootings in Aurora, Tucson, or Newtown, one would read scores of connections between the acts of violence and allegations of mental illness or instability.  In fact, according to Ronald Honberg, the director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, none of these individuals have ever been formally diagnosed with a mental health issue, at least not to our knowledge.  Yet, in the wake of these shootings, the discussion about gun control centered directly on issues of mental health, reflecting subconscious societal connections between violence and mental health.


However, the truth is that, although many people assume that mental illness commonly precipitates violence, the annual incidence of violent crimes against people with serious mental illnesses is more than four times higher than in the general population (Teplin, et al. 2005).  If we are going to have a national conversation about mental health, then this aspect has to be included in it.  However, the current stigmas present in the media, political discourse, and social conversation short circuit the potential productivity of a mental health conversation by reducing the impact of mental health to acts of violence, a connection that is not backed up by the facts themselves.


A public conversation about increasing resources for addressing mental health is essential in our national health climate, especially when approximately 47% of Americans will have a diagnosable disorder within their lifetime (according to the DSM-5).  However, as we pursue this conversation, we must be extremely careful about the ways in which we conflate mental health and violence.  The language we use and the connections we draw matter immensely for our abilities to care for such a significant and valuable population in our society.


The Psychological Trauma of Death Row

On the evening of February 19, 2013, Warren Hill, a Georgia inmate said his final goodbyes and prepared to die by lethal injection.  Just 30 minutes before the time he was scheduled to be executed, after he had already taken an oral sedative to prepare for the gurney, Hill learned of a stay on his execution issued by the 11th circuit federal appeals court.  This was not the first time Hill had been forced to face his death, only to be temporarily saved within hours prior. In July, he received a stay on his execution just 90 minutes before the scheduled injection.

This time, Hill’s stay was issued on account of new questions surrounding his intellectual disability and the testimonies of his psychiatric examiners.

While Hill’s case raises many questions about intellectual disabilities and the justice system, it also illuminates the psychological trauma perpetuated by death penalty systems.  It is no secret that our bodies bear the marks of psychological trauma in many ways.  We now know the many ways in which bodies and minds bear the marks of trauma long after the event itself (Robyn Fivush, et. al).  However, in public dialogue, death row inmates are an exception, as few people attempt to understand them as victims of a certain type of trauma themselves.  For many, the fact that death row inmates are destined for execution precludes any attempt to understand and provide therapy for the psychological trauma caused by death row procedures, particularly in terms of appeal and stay processes.

In a 2004 study issued by Cornell, researchers found that 1 in 8 of individuals executed under the death penalty in the modern era voluntarily waved the appeals process and faced their executions.  Human rights advocacy groups, such as the Southern Center for Human Rights and Amnesty US point out that many inmates would rather voluntarily choose to face their death rather than prolong the anxiety of the stay process by way of an appeal. Some even liken Hill’s recent stay, as well as those in other death penalty cases, as akin to psychological torture. While, for death penalty activists, stays can be a minor victory in that they prolong the inmate’s life, they can also serve as the one of the most psychologically damaging experiences that an inmate can suffer. However, very little research and exploration has been done in this area, as death row inmates are typically cast as “unrecoverable”. In the rare case that an inmate receives a stay and is proven innocent, psychologists such as Stuart Grassian point out that the effects of the trauma are nearly irreversible.

How might psychologists work therapeutically with death row inmates, who face the psychological trauma of execution every day? How might such approaches appropriate practices such as narrative therapy, virtual memory, and support groups? Moreover, would such practices be helpful in a context where the prospect for recovery seems so bleak? In fact, psychologists across the nation are beginning to discover the positive, (re)humanizing effects of group counseling therapy with condemned inmates.

Perhaps the most important question in all of this still stands: Are death row inmates valuable enough as human beings for their psychological trauma to be taken seriously?