Gun control, mental health, and the Holocaust

By Robert Gluck/JNS.org

While the gun control debate intensifies in the U.S., a bipartisan group of lawmakers is pointing to improved treatment of mental health issues, rather than stricter gun laws, as the proper preventive measure for high-profile shootings such as those at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and a Century movie theater in Aurora, Colo.

Click photo to download. Caption: United States President Barack Obama listens as Vice President Joe Biden presents proposals as part of the Obama Administration's response to the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, during a policy meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House on January 14, 2013. During the divisive national debate on gun control, some federal legislators are now arguing for laws to provide better mental illness treatment as a preventive measure for shootings, rather than stricter gun laws. Credit: Pete Souza/White House.

Understanding the past may yield the solution to this modern problem, as some experts and advocates say contemporary mistreatment of mental health issues can be partially traced back to how the Nazis treated people with mental illnesses during the Holocaust.

Gun control is an often divisive debate dictated by party lines, but the New York Times reported April 12 that a bipartisan group of federal legislators is working on plans to improve the treatment of mental health issues, and incorporate such plans into a future gun bill, because they agree those issues are the primary cause of large-scale shootings.

“This is a place where people can come together,” said U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), according to the New York Times. “As we’ve listened to people on all sides of the gun debate, they’ve all talked about the fact that we need to address mental health treatment. And that’s what this does.”

“This is actually something we can and should do something about,” U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) said. “We need to make sure that the mentally ill are getting the help they need.” 

Click photo to download. Caption: The March on Washington for Gun Control, on Jan. 26, 2013, in the aftermath of the school shooting that killed 26 in Newtown, Connecticut. Credit: Slowking4/Wikimedia Commons.

Not apparent from the statements and plans of senators, however, is the connection between the Holocaust and mental illness. According to Michael Burleigh, author of Death and Deliverance: Euthanasia in Germany, c. 1900-1945, from 1939-1945 the Nazis systematically murdered 200,000 people with mental illness, whom they stigmatized. 

Burleigh’s book was the first full-scale study in English of this complex and covert series of operations known as the “euthanasia” program. Dr. Patricia Heberer—author of Children During the Holocaust, a specialist on medical crimes and eugenics policies in Nazi Germany, and a historian in the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum—tells JNS.org that Burleigh’s book “did a good job of looking at everyone involved, especially the victims.”

The Holocaust museum houses Nazi propaganda films about victims, many who had mental illness, in its Steven Spielberg archives. Heberer uses these films in presentations she gives to faculties at America’s top medical schools.

“I give a presentation of the sterilization and so-called euthanasia program and insert the films in the middle so people can see how propagandists portrayed the mentally ill at the time,” Heberer says.

In the films, the Nazis showcase children with the worst manifestations of mental illness and physical disability they could find, in order to further the prejudice and stigma already associated with people suffering from mental illness.

“What the Nazis were trying to do with these propaganda films, especially those made in the mid 1930s, was to underpin public support for the sterilization policy which went into effect in 1934,” Heberer says. “It allowed the German government to sterilize individuals who had schizophrenia, manic-depressive disorder, hereditary feeblemindedness, which was a very ambiguous diagnosis, hereditary epilepsy, Huntington’s chorea, hereditary blindness or deafness, severe physical deformities and also severe and chronic alcoholism. This measure was a public measure and it was distinctly unpopular. They were used in the same way eugenics (the idea of better breeding for humans) was used by the Nazis to give a medical and scientific stamp of approval on Nazi racial ideas.”

According to Burleigh’s book, Nazi Germany was not the first or only country to sterilize people considered “abnormal.” Before Hitler, the U.S. led the world in forced sterilizations. Between 1907 and 1939, more than 30,000 people in 29 states were sterilized, many of them unknowingly or against their will, while they were incarcerated in prisons or institutions for the mentally ill. Nearly half of the operations were carried out in California. Advocates of sterilization policies in both Germany and the U.S. were influenced by eugenics. This sociobiological theory took Charles Darwin’s principle of natural selection and applied it to society. Eugenicists believed the human race could be improved by controlled breeding.   

From September 1939 to August 1941, physicians killed thousands of people who were “judged incurably sick, by critical medical examination” under the Nazis’ euthanasia program, but the practice continued unofficially until the end of the Nazi regime in 1945, Heberer says.

Today, under the leadership of former First Lady Rosalynn Carter, one of America’s leading advocates for the rights of people with mental illness, the Carter Center’s Mental Health Program works to promote awareness about mental health issues, inform public policy, achieve equity for mental health care comparable to other health care, and reduce stigma and discrimination against those with mental illnesses. 

A sheet titled “Facts About Mental Illness and Violence,” published by the Carter Center, addresses what it calls myths and misperceptions with the following bullet points: 1) The vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent; 2) The public is misinformed about the link between mental illness and violence; 3) Inaccurate beliefs about mental illness and violence lead to widespread stigma and discrimination; 4) The link between mental illness and violence is promoted by the entertainment and news media.

Dr. Thomas Bornemann, director of the Carter Center’s Mental Health Program, tells JNS.org that “a lot of the press has missed the boat” when it comes to mental illness.

“The bigger story here is our fragmented and broken public mental health system in America,” he says. “In the recent economic downturn in particular, the state mental health authorities, which are generally the frontlines for people living with serious mental illness, have taken tremendous hits all over the country as the economy has done so poorly for such a prolonged period of time. As a result, a lot of the supportive services that are necessary to help people stay stable in their homes, in their communities, have either evaporated or have become so competitive it’s hard to get into them. The larger story here is this. We know a lot about what to do. We have not consistently scaled it up and sustained the level of effort necessary.”

Bornemann says that in a number of high-profile shootings in recent memory, including at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, most of the perpetrators were known to mental health programs and community support systems, but those programs and systems failed in some form to respond to the perpetrators or their families’ needs.

“That’s the bigger issue here,” Bornemann tells JNS.org. “How do we begin to reduce the fragmentation, increase the collaboration, and begin to channel these people into the right kind of care they need in a timely manner? All too often they don’t get the services they need and we end up in some pretty difficult circumstances.”

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Posted on April 21, 2013 and filed under U.S., Features.