Advocates for people experiencing mental illness are bracing for an onslaught of blame after it was revealed that the man charged with carrying out one of the worst attacks on New York’s subway system said he had a history of mental disorder.
Frank R. James, 62, the man who was arrested Wednesday and charged with committing a terrorist attack, talked about his struggle with mental illness in videos he shared on YouTube prior to the shooting and blamed Mayor Eric Adams’ mental-health policies for making his condition worse.
Like previous high-profile incidents, the alleged gunman’s mental-health may become the focus of a rallying call to force people diagnosed with psychiatric disorders to undergo treatment against their will, said Harvey Rosenthal, chief executive officer of the New York Association of Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services, an advocacy group.
“We are not, as a whole community, violent and out to do these things,” said Rosenthal, who was diagnosed with bipolar II, a mood-related condition, himself. “And, so please, for God's sake, don't, after these terrible things happen, ramp up coercion across the whole community.”
According to an article published in a medical journal, JAMA Psychiatry, the majority of the 44.7 million adults in the United States with a mental illness are not violent toward others. Rather, people who experience mental-health issues are more often the targets of violence instead of the perpetrators of violence.
Dr. Peter Stastny, a psychiatrist who works with mentally ill people in institutional settings, said just because an individual suffers from mental illness doesn’t mean the person is at greater risk of committing acts of violence. That, he said, can depend on a combination of factors.
“If a person with a mental illness decides to buy a gun, which is a very, very, very tiny percentage of people with mental-health problems who do that, then the risk is augmented substantially,” Stastny said.
The risk increases not because the individual has a mental illness but because the person has a weapon, he said.
On Tuesday, police said James, a former machinist, detonated two smoke grenades inside a crowded subway train as it passed through Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and fired 33 shots in the car and on the station platform, striking 10 people and injuring at least 13 others. No one was killed. James was taken into custody on Wednesday afternoon after a day-long manhunt. The motive is still unknown.
The mass shooting came on the heels of recent unprovoked killings in which the alleged attackers have a history of mental illness. In January, Martial Simon, 61, was arrested and charged with pushing Michelle Alyssa Go in front of an oncoming subway train in Times Square. In March, Gerald Brevard III, 30, of Washington, D.C, was arrested and charged with shooting and killing two homeless men in New York and Washington and wounding three others.
After high-profile attacks, it’s natural for the public to be afraid, said Dr. Ellen Tabor, an associate chief medical officer at the Institute for Community Living. But both she and Rosenthal noted that most subway trips -- there are about 3 million on the typical weekday -- conclude safely.
“This was a terrifying, terrible event that is, thankfully, exceedingly rare,” Tabor said.