A 74 year-old man named Ralph Gilbertsen, of Richfield, Minnesota, feels harassed and he fears for his life. He has sent numerous letters to city officials, police, and his apartment building management detailing the harassment. He has copied down the license plate numbers of 75 different vehicles that have tailed him. Not only have officials done nothing to address the harassment, police have now taken away his guns. But here’s the catch: Gilbertsen is convinced that he’s being harassed by the CIA and that his apartment building, it’s management, the town, and the police force are full of CIA agents.
Under Minnesota law, if somebody is institutionalized or deemed a danger to others, it is legal for police to seize their firearms. But Gilbertsen is going to court to get his guns back. His psychiatrist has written a letter claiming that Gilbertsen isn’t a threat. Gilbertsen doesn’t feel he’s a danger to anyone. He believes he’s the one in danger.
For a detailed account of the story, check out this article in the Star Tribue by John Reinan.
When I struggled with mental illness, I spent years convinced I was being watched and followed. Even when I was at home, I thought people were watching me through the windows or on hidden cameras. It seriously affected my actions. You can check out a video explaining more about my paranoia symptoms here: “Paranoia and Being Watched”.
As much as I can identify with how real and threatening these delusions feel, I wouldn’t see them, or the accompanying compulsive reactions to them, as indicators of mental well-being. But that doesn’t necessarily mean Gilbertsen is uniquely dangerous or delusional compared to your average person. An estimated 50% of Americans believe in some type of conspiracy theory. A Baylor University survey found 55% of respondents believed a guardian angel had protected them from harm or helped them avoid an accident. Marco Rubio believed he could win the Florida primary. Enough people devote their lives to astral projection, government weather control, reptilians ruling us, and believing that vaccines cause autism, that you can even pay money to take a cruise with them, as a reporter from Gawker media recently (bravely) did: “Sail (Far) Away: At Sea with America’s Largest Floating Gathering of Conspiracy Theorists“. And the secret that the world is flat circled the globe pretty quickly. And enough people believe Beyoncé is part of the Illuminati that she referenced it in a song.
Delusions are “normal” in that they’re very common. But they can also be dangerous. One study published in the journal, Psychological Medicine, in 2014, found that people who were more prone to delusions, were also more prone to make quick decisions without gathering all of the necessary information. That’s not a big deal if it means you’re signing yourself up for American Idol auditions because you’re delusional about your singing abilities, but it is potentially an issue if you’re somebody with a gun and you hold onto delusions about a specific group of people being out to get you. Those delusions might be about a group like the CIA, but they could also be about people of a certain race, sexuality, religion, disability, etc. Bigotry is a delusional practice.
When people with guns feel threatened and make quick decisions based on their delusional, racist beliefs, people get hurt. A lot of people.
So if the police are taking away Gilbertsen’s guns because of some letters, I’m not opposed to that, but that’s because I assume they’re also going to take away the guns of every person who makes a bigoted Facebook post. That makes me feel much safer. And I assume we’ll start testing police officers, and anybody else with weapons on the job, for delusional beliefs–there are tests you can take–and we won’t issue guns to individuals that hold onto any delusions. And I assume that any politician with any decision-making power will lose that decision-making power if we find that they’re prone to delusions (Sorry, Marco. No more Senate Foreign Relations Committee for you). That is just good science because we know that delusional people make bad decisions.
I believe all of these things will now happen. But I might be delusional.
What delusions are you holding onto?