Guns and Mental Health

In the wake of yet another mass shooting a few weeks ago, pundits and politicians from the left and right are rushing the microphone to show support for victims and their families. They call for policy changes, more enforcement, and stricter laws. They want to see a safe America. They can’t have this happen again.

What do I expect from these speeches? Absolutely nothing.

For years, politicians have been blowing hot air trying to push through anti-gun legislation to no avail. There is significant push-back from the right and gun rights lobbying organizations. These groups argue that it is not the guns obtained legally that are the problem—it’s those obtained illegally, on the black-market or through theft, that allow these mass shootings, and no amount of background checks or loophole closures is going to fix that.

The story in Oregon is common at this point—a socially distant young white man, most likely mentally disturbed, took weapons from family members and opened fire. How many times do we have to hear this story before we recognize that we can help prevent these tragedies?

Recognizing mental health problems can be extremely difficult. But in recent cases, professionals have not had any problem recognizing that these men had mental health issues. Jared Loughner was flagged for schizophrenia before he killed 6 people in Tucson. James Holmes was noted to be “shifting insidiously into a frank psychotic disorder such as schizophrenia” as noted by a psychologist who treated him before he murdered 12 people in Aurora. Adam Lanza had been treated for severe mental health problems for years before 20 children died by his gun in Newtown.

These men had people looking after them; their family members were present. They also happened to have family members who did not properly secure a firearm.

The problem does not have to do with gun legislation. It is not something our elected officials can fix. This is an issue of personal responsibility and a need to destigmatize mental health discussion. If these men could have gotten the help they needed, maybe those lives would have been saved.

On Last Week Tonight, John Oliver pointed out that the only time we do talk about mental health is in the aftermath of a mass shooting. When we discuss mental health in the shadow of such a tragedy, we only see those with mental health problems with a shadow of violence. This stigma can dissuade people from getting the help they desperately need or to seek help for a loved one.

The rhetoric we use in reference to mental health can intentionally or absent-mindedly stigmatizing, but typically has a negative connotation. In 2014 during a Q&A about the rising number of school shootings, President Obama said, “The United States does not have a monopoly on crazy people. It's not the only country that has psychosis.”

We use words like crazy, spastic, retard, insane, and the list goes on and on, to label people as something other than normal. If we really want to change the discussion of mental health issues, we need to first recognize that progress will only be made with a respectful and informed language.

We often try to push aside those with mental health problems because significant resources and time are necessary to help these individuals. Sending those with mental health struggles to prison has become a common solution.

According to the U.S. Justice Department, 56 percent of inmates in state prisons are struggling with mental health problems of any kind. In federal prison, 45 percent of inmates grapple with the same issues. This does not correspond, however, to people with mental health problems committing violence at a significantly higher rate than mentally stable individuals.

According to a 2012 study, “The odds of a person with mental illness experiencing physical, sexual, or domestic violence were 3.86-fold higher than among adults without any disabilities.” But instead of properly funded programs to help those with mental disabilities stay safe in their communities, while keeping those around them safe as well, it is much easier to send these people to prison.

A number of new programs have been implemented to help stabilize the lives of individuals living with mental health problems. New York is currently implementing one such program—Assertive Community Treatment (ACT).

This program allows teams of professionals to meet with treatment recipients to customize a treatment plan. The plans can range from daily meeting with a psychiatrist, group meetings, or simply help paying bills on time.

ACT attempts to keep people in their homes and engaged in their community as much as possible to ensure that when an individual’s treatment plan changes, he or she is able to adjust to a “normal” living situation.

The best part about this treatment track is that is works. This model has proven effective in reducing hospitalization, is no more expensive than traditional care, and is more satisfactory to consumers and their families than standard care. Unfortunately, this program is not uniformly available to those who may need it because of an ongoing debate about its cost efficiency and resource dedication.

We have programs that work. There is a national consensus that we want to change something about the current status quo. The only component missing is the will to do something.

It is the responsibility of each individual to begin a positive mental health discussion outside the context of violence. It is the discussions that we have, not our laws, that will make a difference in the slow process of destigmatizing mental health.