Thursday, May 19, 2022

Racism and gun violence both exist in an overtly gun extremist society: They cannot be explained away by mental illness.

I suppose I should have not been very shocked that a Wall Street Journal editorial this morning (1) chose to double down on both gun rights and the myth that racism is not a problem and had nothing to do with the recent mass shooting – while scapegoating both mental illness and the rationed system of mental health care that we have in this country.  For good measure he added another conservative agenda item - that there was also blame for the public health officials like Dr. Fauci for mismanaging the pandemic.  This post is to straighten all of that out.

Let me preface these remarks by saying that I have no information about the most recent mass shooting other than what is reported in the media.  The author of the editorial does not seem to either. What I do have is 22 years of experience in acute care psychiatry and involuntary care. That’s right – for 22 years I was one of the guys you would have to see if you were admitted to my hospital on a legal hold for behavior that involved threatening or harming other people or yourself.  That included all kinds of violence - homicide, suicide attempts and severe self injury, and violent confrontations/shoot outs with the police.  I had to evaluate the situation with the considerable assistance from my colleagues and decide if that person could be released or needed to be held for further assessment and treatment. People (including psychiatrists) like to summarize that situation by saying: “Nobody can predict future dangerousness” and that is certainly true. But we do pretty well in the short term (hours to days).  We also do well coming up with a plan to prevent future violence.

The details about the most recent mass shooting are still being reported at this time, but so far include interviews with the families of the victims, police reports, videos, and excerpts from a manifesto written by the perpetrator.  According to reports that manifesto discussed Replacement Theory as a potential motive for the mass shooting.  Replacement Theory is a white nationalist, far right ideology that claims non-whites are a threat to the white majority in several countries including the US. A corollary is that the Democrats are trying to get aligned with more non-white voters to develop more political power. This is the rationale currently given in the media for the actions of the mass shooter who scouted neighborhoods and said very explicitly in documents that his intent was to murder as many black people as possible. He had no difficulty obtaining firearms legally – even though he was detained and sent for an emergency evaluation a little less than a year earlier for stating “murder-suicide” in response to an online question about what he planned to do upon retirement.  Those details and his response talking about how he got out of it and continued to plan to kill people are at this link.  

As a psychiatrist and member of the American Psychiatric Association, I can’t speculate on the diagnosis of anyone who I have not personally assessed and if I did do an assessment – I would need a release from the person to discuss any details.  The editorialist is under no constraints speculating that “signals were missed” and that “psychotic young males whose outlet is killing” is not the object of his column.  Instead, he makes the claim that he is really concerned about the post pandemic mental illness and addiction trends in this country. He is apparently not consulting the correct sources about what has happened in this country in terms of mental health care before the pandemic.

I will start with his anchor point in the 1970s.  At about that time Len Stein, MD and coworkers invented Assertive Community Treatment and a number of additional innovative approaches that were focused on keeping people with severe mental illnesses in their own homes.  Dr. Stein was one of my mentors and in seminars he would show what Wisconsin state hospital wards used to look like. About a hundred patients in one large room with their cots edge-to-edge and all wearing hospital pajamas. By the time I was working with him in the 1980s, those folks were living independently supported by case management teams and psychiatrists. Dr. Stein and his colleagues also ran a community mental health center that included crisis intervention services and outreach. That model of community mental health and crisis intervention is still practiced and has been covered in the New England Journal of Medicine.  Psychiatric residents are still trained in community mental health settings and many prefer to practice there.  Counties are not as enthusiastic and have shut down many if not most community mental health centers.

Community psychiatry is an obvious 50-year-old solution but it has to be funded. The same is true of affordable housing.  In some cases that housing needs to be supervised and also a sober environment. Both community psychiatry and affordable housing are casualties of business rationing that can only occur with the full cooperation of both state and federal governments. The current system costs about a trillion dollars in overhead that is directed to Wall Street profits and unnecessary meddling by middle managers. The only people who “sweep mental health under the rug” are large healthcare organizations and state bureaucrats who disproportionately ration it.  The "science of mental health" is not difficult at all.  Being forced to do it for free is difficult.

The 1980s were a critical time in establishing the managed care industry and taking all healthcare out of the purview of physicians.  While rationing psychiatric resources was being ramped up, services to treat alcoholism and addiction were essentially demolished. Suddenly you could not longer get detoxification services at most hospitals.  People were sent to social detox units run by counties where there was no medical coverage.  The thinking was that if a person developed medical complications like seizures or delirium tremens they could always be sent back to the hospital. The biggest risk was continued substance use and immediate relapse. Residential and outpatient treatment facilities never materialized.  Inadequate funding was a significant problem.  The managed care industry played a role in that case as well with absurd expectations and limits on treatment.  It is no accident that treatment for substance use disorders basically became non-existent.  None of the disproportionate rationing of mental health or substance abuse treatment is new.  It has been like this for 30 years because it is the government endorsed model of care.  

Overall, this editorial is a smokescreen over the proximate issues of guns and racism.  The author trivializes this as political rhetoric when in fact the rhetoric has all been pro-guns and pro-white supremacy.  It is the only rational explanation for turning the United States into an armed camp that has progressively increased the likelihood of gun violence. We are not talking about a pandemic precipitated phenomenon.  The gun violence has been multi-year and the pro-gun party has “doubled down” on it to make it more likely.  As far as politics go – now that we know how a partisan Supreme Court works – the Heller decision and the resulting liberalization of gun ownership should not come as a surprise.  On the issue of hate crimes, I can’t really think of anything more relevant in a case based on the public disclosures.  This was a specific crime directed at black Americans intentionally perpetrated in a neighborhood that was scouted ahead of time for that ethnicity. Brushing that aside to claim that this is a response to an embarrassing record on mental illness, when there is no evidence that is a factor is disingenuous.

American history including other recent mass shootings tells us that racism can be a causative factor.  What is never addressed is the omnipresent gun culture in the USA.  People with an apparent need for military weapons and handguns and politicians willing to give them unlimited access to carrying them in public, carrying them without permits, and stand your ground laws - encouraging violent confrontations with firearms.  All fueled by one party and their affiliated special interests.

Disingenuous discourse and misinformation is what we typically see these days. If you want the facts about what needs to be there in terms of a functional mental health system (and I know there are absolutely no business people and very few politicians that do) – ask a psychiatrist. If you want to know about what gun control needs to be in effect rather than claiming that psychiatrists are not preventing gun violence from people with no mental illness – you can also ask me.

I could put all of those details on a 4” x 6” card and it would work. 

But there is certainly nobody on the right or at the WSJ who wants to know that either.


George Dawson, MD, DFAPA



1:  Daniel Henninger. The Next Pandemic: Mental Illness.  Wall Street Journal. May 18, 2022.

Graphics Credit:  Eduardo Colon, MD


  1. Gerard Clancy, MD is currently Professor of Psychiatry and Emergency Medicine at University of Iowa since his return here in 2020 from Tulsa. Years ago, he started the Assertive Community Treatment service in Iowa City before moving to Oklahoma where he became President of Tulsa University. He was like you, a mover and a shaker in psychiatry, especially in the community.

    1. Thanks Jim - that is good to know. There are certainly enclaves of ACT here and there around the country but it is not a standard. I think a lot of that has to do with defunding community mental health centers. When I think of the one I trained at (Dane County Mental Health Center) and the one I worked at out of residency as a public health service payback requirement - the loss of these centers is as big a tragedy as the loss of adequate numbers of state hospital and acute care beds.