The Presidential Insult The Political Pundits Missed

Last Tuesday’s presidential debates have been scrutinized in microscopic detail. The Washington Post even published a front page story about each candidate’s body language. Yet none of the political pundits chastised President Obama for insulting one-in-five Americans. Not even the long-line of president-haters at Fox News.

What did the President say that was offensive?

“We have to…make sure that we’re keeping guns out of the hands of criminals, those who are mentally ill…”

A moment later he added:

“If we can get automatic weapons that kill folks in amazing numbers out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill.”

Substitute any other group except “the mentally ill”  into the President’s two sentences.

“If we can get automatic weapons that kill folks in amazing numbers out of the hands of criminals and the Hispanics – blacks — gays.”  You can even substitute the word Republicans. 

The President’s reference smeared a lot of innocent Americans. According to a recent study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 45.9 million American adults experience a mental illness during any given year. Does President Obama believe these 45.9 million Americans pose an immediate threat to society?

Before my complaint is dismissed as nit-picking political correctness run amok, consider this: my adult son is one of those Americans. He has a severe mental disorder. I have witnessed first-hand how he has been stigmatized because of his diagnosis. He has been barred from certain jobs and turned away from employment opportunities, for which, he was well-qualified. Friends have distanced themselves from him. People whisper behind his back. Housing is tougher for him to find. Health insurance companies are wary. All because he developed a mood disorder during his twenties that psychiatrists’ claim is a biologically and genetically based illness that clearly is not his fault.

President Obama was referring to the recent shootings in an Aurora movie theater when he made his remarks. Murders by Jared Lee Loughner in Tucson and Seung-Hui Cho on the Virginia Tech campus have fueled the stereotype that “the mentally ill” are untrustworthy and dangerous. But those shooters are no more representative than the 9/11 bombers are of all Muslims. We shouldn’t condemn everyone because of violent acts by a few.

The majority of Americans diagnosed with mental disorders are not dangerous. They are more likely to be victims than to victimize. But some are clearly dangerous. Instead of typecasting all of them, Obama ought to be pushing harder for initiatives that can better protect the public by helping people recover.

Family, friends and college professors noticed odd behavior and were alarmed before the Tucson and Virginia Tech shootings. But misguided mental health laws that required a person to act dangerously before anyone could intervene and faulty mental health services failed to stop those killings. I suspect the same will prove true in Aurora.

Rather than reducing community mental health services through budget cuts, we need to support effective ones. The Lamp Community in Los Angeles’ skid row reduces homelessness by renting subsidized apartments to tenants even if they are not yet clean, sober or mentally stable. It helps people recover. Fountain House in Manhattan finds employment through job sharing for individuals whose mental disorders make it impossible for them to work at traditional forty hour per week jobs. It helps people recover. Safe housing, employment, access to meaningful medical care are proven recovery tools. They help people recover.

By redirecting funds from jails and prisons, and crisis-driven services, such as traditional homeless shelters and hospital emergency rooms, into supportive, permanent housing and evidence based treatment, we can invest up-front in initiatives that will result in savings over the long run. That is a far more rational and humane way of doing business than our current crisis-driven approach that sends people to costly hospital emergency rooms, overnight shelters and jails causing an unending growth in Medicaid, emergency budgets and corrections.

Sadly, the presidential debate fell victim to the same public discourse that always arises after tragedies such as those in Aurora, Tucson and at Virginia Tech. The focus immediately becomes gun control. It should be fixing our broken mental health system.

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.


  1. Carry on my friend….

  2. This article should be published on front page of the New York Times and discussed on CNN, MSNBC and FOX.  

  3. Terri Wasilenko says

    I watched the presidential debate that evening but couldn’t quite make out what President Obama said about the mentally ill. It was the second sentence that I missed. Perhaps he was talking so fast that I missed it. Now that I am able to read what he said, I am troubled by what he was inferring. My loved one isn’t a mass murderer. Thanks for pointing it out, Pete.

  4.  Dear Pete Earley,

    always, thank you so much for your fantastic work to help call
    attention to the problems faced by the mentally ill. I have one small
    point of disagreement with your article.

    son, too, is bipolar. When I heard the President mention the mentally
    ill in the debate, it didn’t occur to me that it might be an insult. I
    had the thought that he mentioned the mentally ill, instead of ignoring
    them, as usually seems to be the case, and it might be an opportunity
    for those of us who have been personally touched by mental illness in
    our lives and therefore have an awareness that is only theoretical to
    many people.

    I heard about the shootings referred to, before the press was even
    reporting that the young men involved had mental problems, my thoughts
    went back to our experience when our son was first having problems, and
    we didn’t have any idea what was going on, or what to do. “That could
    easily be him”, I thought. If we had not been able to find help for him,
    he could have gone much farther into the illness, and there’s no way to
    know what might have happened.

    is the place where I have a slightly different way to think about the
    problem, where you say: “ … ought to be pushing harder for initiatives
    that can better protect the public by helping people recover.
    friends and college professors noticed odd behavior and were alarmed
    before the Tucson and Virginia Tech shootings. But misguided mental
    health laws that required a person to act dangerously before anyone
    could intervene and faulty mental health services failed to stop those
    killings. …”  

    of “Obama ought to be pushing”, I believe that “WE” should be doing
    more pushing, only I don’t personally know where to begin. It is
    frustrating. I believe that President Obama will do everything that he
    can to support a solution to this humanitarian and social problem, as
    soon as WE (the friends and family who love those who are mentally ill)
    somehow speak up more about the problem and let him hear our voices.

    son recently had another manic episode, in the first few short days of
    which, he knew he needed help, and went from doctor’s office to
    hospital, back to doctor’s office, but was not able to get help early
    because he was “not a danger to himself or others.” “He does not meet
    the criteria.”

    is the preventative care for the mentally ill in our ‘health care’
    system? There certainly seems to be a gap. The state hospital system can
    do wonders, once the patient is able to enter it. But, long term beds
    are on the decline nation-wide, and very early intervention is simply

    is the mental health community, NAMI, or anyone doing to solve this
    situation? I would love to add my own energy to this movement. Whatever I
    am able to do, I will, but don’t know how to find someone else who
    understands the problem and knows where to begin to make the needed

    • Terri Wasilenko says

      Look up your local NAMI affiliate on line. Your state NAMI or NAMI National are good starting points for information about NAMI’s mission and goals. I wish you the best.

  5. Another great article Pete, I am hoping our President will obtain a better understanding of mental illness.

  6. This posting and your op-ed in the Post is ridiculous. Your argument hinges on “substitute any group here for the mentally ill and see how prejudiced it makes Obama look!” It’s beyond specious, it’s slander.

    • Terri Wasilenko says

       Hi. Pete is making the point that mentally ill persons are subjected to unrelenting stigma in our society. President Obama is an intelligent, persuasive and powerful role model for all Americans. He needs to consider the the human rights of mentally ill persons and their families.
      I have decided to vote for Barack Obama despite the posting.

  7. I too got a cringe in my stomach when I heard the president say keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill.  It clearly pointed a finger at mental illness and the picture it painted was not a good one. John Q Public is already frightened by those with mental illness and these statements fanned the fire for sure. I know in Montana, mentally ill offenders are sent to prison for smaller infractions simply because they are mentally ill and judges, because they are politicians too, act only in their own self interest. Thanks for the outcry Pete  

  8. I was disgusted by President Obama’s insulting, discriminatory remarks about the mentally ill. Do you know of any organizations that get guns to the mentally ill. I would like to send some of my extra and unused guns to support this cause.

  9. Bill Walsh says

    Obama showed his ignorance when he
    said, “Part of it is seeing if we can get automatic weapons that kill
    folks in amazing numbers out of the hands of criminals and the mentally
    ill”. First, “automatic weapons were banned from general ownership in
    1934. Second, inanimate objects do not kill people. Third but not least, mental
    illness is almost always not harmful to anyone except the sufferer. Almost
    every person alive can go through a period that could be associated with mental
    illness. Depression after the death of a loved one, and anxiety in its many
    forms visits most people from time to time. Postpartum depression and panic
    attacks are common. Who among you has not endured a dark night of the soul?
    It’s a bogeyman akin to calling a person a witch in former times. During the
    darkest days in the Soviet Union, it was a pretext for throwing political
    opponents into prison. Political persecution did not die when the USSR
    collapsed. It’s still alive here today. Our Homeland Security Agency casts
    aspersion and suspicion on our soldiers returning from the battlefield. We are
    to be suspect of persons who are religious or patriotic. People such as Obama
    and Hillary proudly call themselves progressives but their actual philosophies
    are anything but progressive in any positive sense. They are more regressive
    from a historical perspective and suppressive from a human rights perspective.
    I think progressives wish to disarm us simply because their program is coercive
    and they know it. They anticipate opposition from a population they wish to
    reduce to serfdom. ~Bill Walsh

  10. Danaashton says

    My 30 year old son who suffers from a mental illness rescued a young bird on Saturday.  He carried it home in his coat, snuggled it in a blanket like a nest, researched how to care for it ( a type of bird related to a Flamingo) and contacted a Wildlife Rescue group to rehabilitate it.  The lady told him the bird would have died from the cold if he had not picked him up.   How dare Obama lump my son who has a beautiful mind and heart into a violence topic!

  11. I caught the comment during the debate and, at the time, chalked it up to the President using a “shorthand phrase” in the haste of the moment.  But, now that I read this, I agree that the President should not be given any passes on this issue.  By simply substituting the phrase ” dangerously violent among us”  for “criminals and the mentally ill” makes his meaning plain.  Just as there is a distinction to be made between the mentally ill and those who are violent and mentally ill,  not all criminals are violent either.  Don’t forget how many “criminals” are sitting in jail or have records because they possessed a substance some profess to be a viable medicine.