Losing Our Minds Over Mental Illness
By Reginald Coleman
We Must Evolve Our System of Thinking
Nearly a year has passed since the December 2012 massacre in Newtown, Connecticut where twenty prepubescent children and six adults were savagely killed by a mentally ill gunman, and the Washington political culture has jumped out of their cushy seated slumber. With President Obama’s taskforce to curb gun violence activated, nearly two dozen formerly opposed politicians are quickly favoring a bill to ban assault rifles.
To date, 2013 has seen several more fatal incidences involving guns in the wrong hands. While talk for stricter gun policies continues, what about addressing our nation’s mental health policies?
In light of recent mass shootings by mentally ill men the fury of debate sweeps across America concerning guns and mental illness. Gun lobbyists and the President seemingly agree we need to create better laws to keep guns out of mentally ill hands. Existing federal laws prohibit anyone who “has been adjudicated as mentally defective, or has been committed to a mental institution” from purchasing a firearm. Observing the above mentioned statute, considering many Ground Zero first responders, survivors, police, firefighters and military veterans, have filed claims for post-traumatic stress disorder, a mental illness, little thought was put into drafting the law prohibiting mentally ill individuals from buying guns. The same lax, irrational, problem-solving mentality continues.
NYS Senator Kathleen Marchione and other gun advocates are speaking out to have mental health policies addressed. They claim guns aren’t the problem, but the hands they end up in, stating we must keep guns out of mentally ill hands, whom they claim are more violent. According to statistics, the vast majority of violent crimes are committed by those who are not mentally ill, and the mentally ill are 12 times more likely to be victims of violence.
Our country is at a crossroad of its “civil health,” our collective conscience deeply shaken by these events. A social attitude change about gun use similar to the one about public smoking, and drinking and driving, has evolved the past three decades.
The abolitionist and women’s suffrage movements were born of social indifference and intolerance to the subjugation of fellow Americans. However, this parallel consciousness doesn’t exist between the growing movement for gun law repeal and the push to improve mental health policy. The push to repeal current gun laws can be affected by the social attitude of intolerance.
On the other hand, the push to repeal the current mental health policies cannot be sufficiently affected by a social attitude of indifference, an attitude which has allowed our mental health systems to deteriorate, so often leaving those living with mental illness and those caring for them to be overlooked, ostracized and fending for themselves.
We cannot continue this current culture of ignoring the mentally ill and side-stepping the need of mental health policy growth. We need comprehensive mental health services and a mental health system based on transparency and compassionate treatment. We must recreate a system of care that inspires the mentally ill to seek needed treatment and those who care for the mentally ill to feel comfortable reporting relapses or changes in behavior. More importantly, there must be a social attitude change toward the mentally ill. The social and political move to improve mental health care must be a distinct movement. It cannot ride on the back of the gun law repeal movement. Both movements are inherently different.
Will this social attitude of understanding and compassion for the mentally ill take root now? Or will the outcry for gun law repeal overshadow the need to reverse the current mental health trend? Will this be another case of political pandering? Will the sound bites and blame game of the NRA and the gun law repeal advocates relegate the important issue of mental healthcare to the cellars of our social conscience once again?
Mental illness is not like a cold or flu. We don’t catch mental illness from one another. Although some mental illness is hereditary, there are no solid predictors. In fact, mental illness is often experienced by those whose parents have no history of mental illness. In many cases, the illness is brought on by childhood trauma or other psychological traumas in adulthood. There are also cases of “psychotic disorder due to a general medical condition and substance-induced psychotic disorder” whereby there is a prominent and persistent disturbance in mood caused by drug abuse, medication or toxin exposure. So, who is to say “it will never happen to me,” or that it hasn’t already begun to happen?
Mental illness is not “his/her problem”—it is our problem, a human problem. We must solve it with humanity, compassion and a sense of fellowship. We have a responsibility to ourselves. So, as we push forward to evolve in our thinking and treatment of the mentally ill, we must stay mindful of what we stand to lose.