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Vivek Ramaswamy is exploiting the Maine shooting to spread cruel health myths

The Republican primary candidate is using the deaths of at least 18 people to trot out brazenly disastrous and viciously uninformed rhetoric.

Long-shot GOP presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy’s viciously uninformed and recreationally cruel statement on Wednesday’s mass shooting in Maine may have escaped your attention. In case you missed it —?and part of me hopes that you did —?Maine police say that main suspect Robert Card had recently struggled with his mental health and spent a short time at a military-run mental health facility this summer. And Ramaswamy jumped on this vague detail, choosing to use the deaths of at least 18 people to endorse the primally gratifying but realistically counter-productive law-and-order pablum that conservatives spout compulsively whenever their love affair with gun culture turns violent.?Mass shootings never have anything to do with the weapon used; the individual shooters bear all the responsibility and the solution is institutionalizing the mentally ill.?

Ramaswamy jumped on this vague detail, choosing to use the deaths of at least 18 people to endorse primally gratifying but realistically counter-productive law-and-order pablum.

Give Ramaswamy this, if you want: His language goes beyond the fuzzy innovation of “mental health” and the “mental health crisis.” (Fellow primary contestant Nikki Haley is notably fond of invoking these issues with a skillful degree of crocodile empathy.) Rather, he blames “these violent, psychiatrically deranged people” and declares America “must remove [them] ... and be willing to involuntarily commit them,” with that last bit implying that at least part of the problem is a surfeit of mercy.

As a veteran of two different psych wards, I have personal feelings about both the wisdom and efficacy of involuntary commitment. It has its place, but it’s not a solution, mostly because the tools psychiatrists have to predict gun violence (or, really, individual human actions in general) are clumsy at best and warped by cultural biases at worst.

You do not have to be an expert in criminology to understand that once you start enthusiastically examining the population for those “prone to violence,” attention will disproportionately turn (with or without malice) to those already held in contempt or suspicion. These individuals will too often be?the least powerful and the most deprived of the resources needed to defend against those allegations. Ninety-seven percent of mass shooters — including the suspect in this case — are men and most of them are white, yet white men are, as you might expect, underrepresented among the involuntarily committed. Such commitment is — thanks to thinking like Ramaswamy’s — already on the rise.?

What’s more, the tools with which mental health professionals try to divine who might be most prone to violence are incredibly imprecise; that’s why mental health professionals (the people who would be enforcing Ramaswamy’s draconian prescription) from the American Psychological Association to the American Medical Association endorse, above all, reducing the number of guns in communities as being more effective than interventions on the individual level. Police say the Maine suspect, an Army reservist, bought the assault-style weapon believed to have been used in the shooting legally.

Research has shown the most effective form of individual intervention for the prevention of gun violence is the diagnosis and treatment of depression. Suicide accounts for the vast majority of gun deaths in America. Among last year’s 48,117 deaths by gunshot, there were 19,592 homicides and 26,993 suicides — a historic high. I think anyone who talks about reducing gun violence without addressing suicide isn’t serious about the issue. Ramaswamy is not serious.

Perhaps the most egregiously retrograde and potentially disastrous aspect of Ramaswamy’s posturing-in-the-form-of-a-policy-recommendation is his call for “less reliance on pharmaceuticals”? but “more reliance on faith-based approaches that restore purpose to people’s lives.” Look, spirituality is great. Prayer, if nothing else, is an effective form of meditation, meditation is a wonderful tool for managing stress, and substantial research suggests it curbs all sorts of interpersonal violence. I suspect meditation is not what Ramaswamy is talking about; rather, he’s continuing his campaign of assuring the conservative Christians of the GOP base that his own Hindu faith won’t get in the way of their reactionary priorities.

Maligning the use of psychiatric drugs contributes to stigma against mental health treatment.

But maligning the use of psychiatric drugs contributes to stigma against mental health treatment. I’m biased on this point due to my reliance on pharmaceuticals to maintain my mental health, but, sincerely, Vivek, pound sand. First of all — as he also notes — the downward trend of violent crime throughout the 1990s can teach us a lot! For one thing, experts from the National Bureau of Economic Researchers concluded that pharmaceuticals are an important part of violence prevention. Research along these lines notes that the statistical impact is, however, relatively small (a fraction of a percentage point for every percent increase in prescriptions) because the vast majority of the mentally ill are not violent; they are no more likely to commit an act of violence than anyone else. Research suggests as low as 3 to 5 percent of violent crimes can be attributed to a serious mental illness.

Ask questions about the overall turn toward medication to treat mental illness, for sure. There are legitimate and serious concerns, especially about the role of Big Pharma in expanding diagnoses and gaming the market. (Ramaswamy, a former pharmaceutical developer executive, might know this better than most.) But, again, Ramaswamy is not serious.

Indeed, Ramaswamy should be careful if he is earnestly invoking the 1990s drop in violent crime as a guide for future policy, as there is rigorous albeit controversial research suggesting that the single most important factor in that decline — explaining 47 percent of it — was ready access to abortion.?

The biggest problem with '90s nostalgia (and, I get it, Vivek, you’re a millennial;?here he is rapping along to Eminem’s “Lose Yourself”) as a template for our engagement with mass shootings, however, is that the main reason that the nation saw fewer mass shootings from 1994 to 2004 is that there was a ban on assault weapons. So, sure, let’s bring back the '90s! Did you see Tony Hawk’s son recently married Kurt Cobain’s daughter? Michael Stipe officiated! I would like more Liz Phair albums and the assault weapons ban, please.

Ramaswamy is the thirstiest of all the GOP contenders. They are as collectively dry as Mike Pence’s liquor cabinet, and yet Ramaswamy is the spongiest of them all. Most memorably, he showed up outside Trump’s arraignments in both New York and Miami to announce his intention to pardon the former president should he, Ramaswamy, take the White House. Since launching his admittedly audacious bid for the nomination, Ramaswamy has reached for news-cycle relevance with increasing desperation —?a political ambulance-chaser. With his statement on Lewiston, he’s just made that metaphorical inclination grimly literal.

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