MHW: Disability Community Decries Proposal to Monitor People with MI to Predict Violence

NYAPRS Note: A large number of advocates from across the spectrum of the disability advocacy community have joined forces to strongly oppose false connections between gun and other forms of violence and people with mental health related conditions, as well as recent proposals favoring re-institutionalization and electronic monitoring. See below for a list of suggested social media messaging and references developed by members of the group.  


Proposal to Monitor People With MI to Predict Violence Sparks Field Outcry

By Valerie Canady Mental Health Weekly  September 16, 2019


Following a recently announced proposal by the Trump administration to create a new research arm within the proposed Health Advanced Research Projects Agency (HARPA), mental health and disability rights advocacy groups banded together on a preliminary conference call last week to weigh concerns and discuss potential steps should this proposal move forward.


Following the recent shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, President Trump has repeatedly made references and comments linking gun violence to mental illness. Last month, he called for a return to mental health institutions. The mental health community immediately flooded the public with statements opposing the link (see MHW, Aug. 26).

The more recent proposal calls for an early identification of people with mental illness who the administration says are at risk of committing violence. This effort would be part of a larger program to establish a new agency, HARPA, which would be part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The HARPA proposal is based on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) for the military, The Washington Post reported. DARPA serves as the research arm of the Pentagon and collaborates with other federal agencies, the private sector and academia.

‘Troubling’ situation

The director of policy and legal advocacy for the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law said she predicts a public outcry if this proposal actually moves forward. “It is extremely troubling that the White House is apparently exploring an effort to monitor people with psychiatric disabilities to try to identify when they might become violent,” Jennifer Mathis told MHW. “The entire premise of this effort is that having a mental health diagnosis makes a person likely to become violent, but the evidence is clear that that's false.”

Mathis added, “It is also concerning how the information gleaned from monitoring people would or could be used. This proposal has alarming Orwellian overtones. All that it would do is promote fear, prejudice and stigma and make it harder for people with psychiatric disabilities to participate as full members of our society.”

The American Psychological Association (APA) released a statement condemning the use of technology to predict who will become violent. “The idea for an agency focused on developing technology to improve health care and act as an innovation engine is a good one,” said Arthur C. Evans Jr., Ph.D., CEO of the APA. “But it is illogical to task HARPA with solving a real problem of violence by connecting it to a fallacious idea — that people with mental illness are the cause of mass shootings. Research consistently shows a weak link between mental illness and mass shootings.”

Evans pointed to a need to focus on funding more research on the causes of gun violence so that effective preventive strategies can be developed.

Joint Action Needed

“National mental health and disability groups have joined together and are planning a steady stream of joint action to counter these proposals and to fight against the level of scapegoating that is occurring at this time,” Harvey Rosenthal, CEO of the New York Association of Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services (NYAPRS), told MHW.

“These are dark times for us,” said Rosenthal. “Public fears, gun lobbying tactics and the failure of politicians to stand up to the NRA [National Rifle Association]” are fueling these proposals, he noted. “A proposal to monitor people with mental health conditions and look for neurological signs of potential violence would be ludicrous, if not outrageous,” he said.

The dark times, which include (calls for) the institutionalization of people with mental health conditions, increased coercion and (proposed) electronic marking, are reminiscent of Orwellian times, Rosenthal noted, adding that it's something right out of George Orwell's 1984, his dystopian novel about the dangers of totalitarianism, published in 1949.

Rosenthal noted that potentially some kind of smart device tactic could be implemented and used to determine if someone has the potential for violence.

If used, something like this “would amount to a gross violation of people's rights,” he said.

Rosenthal said all hands will be on deck as NYAPRS and other mental health and disability groups move forward.

So far, there has been a huge level of support and commitment from the groups, he said. One of the advocates on last week's call was previously involved in the campaign to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act. “He said this current level of resolve reminds him of the time advocates fought for the ADA,” said Rosenthal. “This is going to be a large campaign,” he said. “We're fighting for our very rights and our basic dignity.”

Debbie Plotnick, vice president for mental health and systems advocacy for Mental Health America, joined in the call with Rosenthal and the others last week. “We came together about how to re‐message and take action,” Plotnick, told MHW. “This is not just about mental illness; it's the entire disability community standing up on this,” she said, adding that they will not stand idly by to see people get “demonized” based on a health condition. “This is like science fiction,” she said. “The proposal is based on false assumptions. This goes back to old prejudices.”

Plotnick added, “A lot of mass shootings are motivated by hate, which is not a mental illness.” If people with mental health conditions were to be monitored, they would be less likely to reach out for help, she noted. “That's counterproductive,” she said.

Indicators of violence, Plotnick noted, include previous violent encounters. “Even driving under the influence is [putting] people at risk, doing violence to others,” she said. Anger and hate are emotions connected to violence, she noted. In fact, Mental Health America has recently come out with T‐shirts that proclaim, “Hate is not a mental illness,” she said.

“This is something every person should be concerned about,” she said. “They're going after the wrong people in a way that is particularly frightening.” Turning people with mental illness into targets and blaming them for cultural and societal problems is the wrong approach, Plotnick said. “Blaming people is not where real solutions lie,” she said.


Sample Social Media Language:

  • Mental health disabilities are not the cause of gun violence.

  • Blaming people with mental health disabilities is a distraction; address the real problem—gun violence.

  • Institutionalization, segregation, and registration of people with mental illness are not the answers — institutionalization is harmful & will not stop gun violence

Scapegoating people with mental illness stigmatizes all people with disabilities.

“Whether based on ignorance, discrimination or hate, the belief that ending gun violence can occur by targeting people with mental illness is wrong...” 

Mental illness and mental health disabilities are not predictors of violent act or mass shooting. “ the real world, these persons are far more likely to be assaulted by others or shot by the police than to commit violent crime themselves.” 

Mental illness isn’t a major risk factor for gun violence. Legislation efforts must focus on the real problem: anger, hate and access to weapons. 

Here’s what people with mental health disabilities have to say about gun violence: 

Social Media Posts to Share / Retweet

Increasing Surveillance of Mentally Ill People Won’t Stop Mass Shootings – Talk Poverty 

I have a mental illness. Don’t scapegoat, institutionalize people like me after shootings. – USA Today

White House weighs controversial plan on mental illness and mass shootings – Washington Post

Trump’s Plan to Stop Violence Via SmartphoneTracking Isn’t Just a Massive Privacy Violation – Slate

Trump’s plan to monitor the mentally ill to curb gun violence is messy and flawed – Washington Post – Op-Ed

Mental Illness is a distraction in conversations on gun violence advocates say – Hartford Current

Experts reject Trump’s call for mental hospitals to fight gun violence – PBS


Wrong Focus: Mental Health In The Gun Safety Debate – Bazelon

The Relationship between the Availability of Psychiatric Hospital Beds, Murders Involving Firearms, and Incarceration Rates – Bazelon

Diane Smith Howard

Managing Attorney for Juvenile and Criminal Justice

National Disability Rights Network (NDRN)