The Sandy Hook shooting — which one commentator on National Public Radio (NPR) said was “to schools as 9/11 was to airports” — has triggered another call for increased surveillance within education. And, following a long tradition of making individual psyches accountable for violence, psychiatric diagnoses and treatments have become central to these arguments. The ghost of Adam Lanza has materialized into the allocation of one and a half billion dollars from the Obama administration for the identification of youth ‘at-risk’ for ‘mental illness’. Senator Al Franken of Minnesota, for example, is currently pushing The Mental Health in Schools Act, which would include the training of people who interact with children every day — “from bus drivers to principals” — to detect ‘signs’ of madness for early intervention.
This sort of psychic policing also proliferated after the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting. While originating in a curious post-Columbine collaboration between the US Secret Service and the Department of Education, this event pushed an intensification of ‘Threat Assessment’ practices to identify, investigate, evaluate, and intervene on students who are potentially mad and therefore, it is assumed, potentially violent. All in the name of public protection and school safety, these practices are now deployed in 80 percent of campuses, with implementation by-and-large taking the form of ‘Behavioural Intervention Teams’ which direct faculty and staff to report “bizarre and unusual behavior”, and draw on the well-known Homeland Security campaign slogan, “If you see something, say something.”
Perhaps, then, this is what Dr Mehmet Oz was referring to when he responded to the Sandy Hook shooting on CNN’s Pier’s Morgan Tonight Show with a call for a “Homeland Security approach to mental illness.”
Wrapped in commonsense and benevolence, there is something about psychic policing that smells like terror. As a practice to identify and intervene on threat before it arises, it moves like a mechanism of security and echoes with post-9/11 politics. It reminds me of the 2002 launch of the US New Freedom Commission on Mental Health. In his opening remarks, then-President George W. Bush invoked “soldiers in the armies of compassion” who were committed to “fighting evil” to “make America a welcoming place for people with disabilities”. The Commission went on to recommend TeenScreen – a program of “mental health check-ups” in schools for identifying and intervening on youth ‘at-risk’ for madness. The Report to the President (PDF) on the Virginia Tech shootings advocating for Threat Assessment was also co-authored by then US Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales — whose tenure included warrantless wiretapping and the authorization of torture. And the Aspen Homeland Security Group’s recent counsel to US Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano drew upon the work of the 9/11 Commission to advocate for the joining of “security measures” with “public education campaigns” and “validators” (such as clergy members, celebrities, and grassroots organizations) to “broadcast…mental health indicators”.
Such strategies are eerily similar to disease mongering: the creation of an ‘at-risk’ population is also the creation of a market for technologies and expertise around classification, surveillance, and intervention. One that is especially profitable because it is based on potential; pre-emptive practices mean that threat can never be falsified, thereby propelling people into loopy interventions that reproduce the very fears and insecurities that fertilized their deployment in the first place. This profitability is, moreover, maximized if the ‘at-risk’ population is considered not only treatable, but incurable. Hence the benefit in mobilizing discourses suggesting that violence comes from a chronic illness. If people are forever potentially mad, then they require life-long preventative treatment. Or, as Nikolas Rose argues, in prevention efforts, “what is treated by doctors and drugs…is not disease but the almost infinitely expandable and malleable empire of risk”.
It follows that psychic policing is ripe for exploitation and lubrication by both the security-industrial and medical-industrial complexes. The association that provides support and professional development for campus Behavioural Intervention Teams (NaBITA), for example, brings in half a million dollars annually through membership dues alone, holds three-day trainings at $1500 a head, and has “partners” that pay a fee to be listed on their website and that include private companies for administration software, training videos, assessment tools, and specialized consultants. Meanwhile TeenScreen was connected to the Texas Medication Algorithm Project — a controversial program to inflate and monopolize pharmaceutical prescriptions, and deeply affiliated with long-time corporate chum of the Bush family, Eli Lilly. And, seven out the 11 Psychotic Disorders Workgroup members for the DSM-5’s ‘Attenuated Psychosis Syndrome’ — a cluster of symptoms used to ‘identify’ people, “at significantly increased risk of conversion to a full-blown psychotic disorder” — had financial ties to the industry. The studies that informed this pending diagnosis (and its prophylactic antipsychotic treatment) also received considerable funding from drug companies including Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Astra-Zeneca, Bristol-Meyers Squibb, and Eli Lilly.
Psychiatric diagnoses and treatments are being peddled through a medico-security industry. The protection of some, dependent on the policing of others; ‘others’ that — especially under politics of terror — are coded as risky in ways that are deeply classed, raced, nation-ed, and gendered. While acts of violence emerge from spaces of richness, whiteness, ‘America’, and masculinity, the security measures that follow typically ricochet into communities that are poor, brown, black, alien, and/or queer. Lined with political and corporate grease, then, psychic policing is threatening to spiral quickly into social injustice. Not to mention its ability to draw our struggles against violence toward broken brains, rather than toward sick social structures.
About the Contributor
Rachel Jane Liebert is a PhD candidate in Critical Social Psychology at the City University of New York. She explores how, and with what implications, psychiatric diagnoses and treatments circulate with/in post-9/11 US politics. Her research has been published in Social Science & Medicine, Women’s Studies Quarterly, and The Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, among others, as well as mobilized for creative, collaborative activism against the privatization and policing of psyches and bodies with/in medicine and education.
 Rose, N. (2007). The Politics of Life Itself: Biomedicine, Power, and Subjectivity in the Twenty-First Century. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.