Are Crazy People Dangerous?

Are crazy people dangerous?

Much of the politics around gun control contemplate restricting gun ownership based on mental health status. Whenever there’s a mass murder, the heat of that politics increases.

Yet, as it turns out, people with diagnosed mental health problems are no more inclined to violence than people without a mental health diagnosis. As a matter of fact, people with mental health diagnoses are more likely to be victims of violence and not perpetrators. When it comes to gun violence specifically, most gun deaths—six out of ten—are suicides.

And yet, restricting the ability of diagnosed crazy people to get guns has ideological appeal and political traction—despite a lack of science. That’s because crazy people are alien, they are other and so worthy of at least caution if not outright discrimination.

Alien from what and who? After the Sandy Hook massacre, a medical anthropologist reported a telling incident in a European city.

While strolling its streets, a visitor to Geel in Belgium witnessed a man become agitated, hostile, and aggressive. He was acting crazy and dangerous. Visitors close by became alarmed and backed away. Then a group of locals came to where this was happening and encircled the crazy man. In creating the circle, “it seemed as if they were performing a ballet, dancing around the person who, in short order, became quiet and allowed his caretaker family to lead him home for a cup of cocoa and a good nap.”

Geel is one of many places referred to as a therapeutic village and also as a recovered community. These are communities that actively care for their crazy people by performing rescues like the one I just described or, as is also done in Geel, have families take in crazy people as boarders—just like normal people.

Geel has been caring for crazy people in this way since the thirteenth century—that’s over 700 years ago. All of that began 700 years before that when Saint Dymphna was martyred outside the town.

Dymphna was the daughter of the Irish pagan warlord Damon. Dymphna’s mother Odilla, a Christian, died when Dymphna was fourteen. Damon went insane for the loss of his wife and searched everywhere for someone to replace her, someone who would look just like Odilla. When Damon failed to find a replacement, one of his advisors suggested an obvious answer: Damon should marry his daughter. What a splendid idea!

Horrified by her incestuous father, Dymphna fled from Ireland for Belgium with her confessor Gerebran, where they settled into a chapel outside Geel. But Damon didn’t give up. He and his men searched for and eventually found his daughter and the priest, who he beheaded as soon he found them. When Dymphna refused to marry him, Damon also beheaded her.

I don’t think it overstates the case to say that Damon was crazy.

The site of Dymphna’s martyrdom and burial became a place where people were cured of “nervous and mental afflictions.” Geel became a destination for pilgrims seeking cures. And Dymphna became the patron Saint of the mentally ill. When she was canonized in the mid-1200s, the town organized itself to care for the pilgrims, including its system of foster families.

Today, with all those crazy people on the loose, an obvious question is “How safe is Geel?” There’s no evidence that Geel has a violent crime rate greater than Belgium as a whole. Some claim the crime rate is lower—along with a lower divorce rate and lower school dropout rate. It’s a town of decent people for whom crazy people aren’t aliens.

Damon, Saint Dymphna’s insane father, wasn’t dangerous because he was insane. He was insane because he was dangerous. As the latest rampage at Isla Vista attests, men who take as natural the overt and covert abuse of women are still dangerous—and because of that crazy, too.

A recent report on the relationship between gun violence and mental health, in addition to concluding that diagnosed crazy people are not more likely to be violent than undiagnosed people, argues that “a history of violent behavior, especially with criminal justice involvement, and other behavioral indicators of risk are much stronger predictors of future gun violence.” This would include things such as “being subject to a temporary domestic violence restraining order, having been convicted of a violent misdemeanor, having two or more driving-under-the-influence convictions in a five-year period, and having two or more controlled-substance convictions in five years.”

So crazy people aren’t dangerous. That’s the wrong way round. It’s dangerous people who are crazy—in a particular way. A way that psychiatrists admit they can’t predict.

Each Tuesday President Barack Obama sits down with his counterterrorism advisors to go through the current kill list of potential targets for murder by drone. Is that just dangerous? Or, because it’s dangerous, is it crazy, too?