Ever since the awful shooting in Newtown, CT in December 2012, mental illness has been front and center on the mind of anyone thinking about public safety in America. I am worried about what this means for many people living with mental illness.
Prior to the shooting at Sandy Hook, we have had various groups afflicted with mental illness. To name a few:
- We have children who are subjected to various forms of psychological, physical and sexual abuse and they will live with the trauma from that abuse everyday for the rest of their lives often in the form of mental illness.
- We have children living with ADHD, CD, ODD, depression, OTSD, bipolar disorder and more.
- We have veterans who suffer from PTSD and TBI, which can cause mental abnormalities and present new psychological functioning problems.
- We have many senior citizens who are suffering from Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia.
- We have adults living with depression, bipolar disorder, alcoholism and addictions to other substances.
- We have nearly 20,000 suicides by firearm every year.
- Substance abuse is a risk factor for violence.
The prevalence of mental illness in our society is staggering. The National Institute of Mental Illness estimates that in the past year 26 percent of the population have suffered from a mental illness in one form or another, and about 45 percent have suffered from mental illness at some point in their life. With this in mind, everyone is affected by mental illness either personally or someone very close to them, i.e. a family member, friend or work colleague.
However, I question the cursory focus on mental illness we see from many people opposed to further gun restrictions. Could the gun rights lobby have a sincere concern for people afflicted with a mental illness? Perhaps, but I don't think that is it because the NRA, for example, was never as vocal as they are now prior to Newtown, CT. Moreover, it seems their focus on mental illness as the way to decrease gun violence is a diversionary tactic to talk about the more than 300 million guns in America or the ease with which people can get guns and misuse guns.
This is not a call to take away the rights of people who enjoy a legal culture of shooting. As a State Representative, I have gladly worked with several constituents obtain their gun permits; I don't have a problem with law abiding people owning guns. I have a problem with anyone demonizing a group of people already stigmatized by society.
Our jails and prisons are filled with people afflicted with mental illness but people afflicted with a mental illness are more likely to become a victim of violence than a perpetrator of violence. We need to stop the fear mongering.
Another concern I have with focusing on mental illness since the shooting in Newtown is not just that I question a superficial interest of the people suddenly talking about mental illness, but their level of understanding. Understanding the nuances of mental illness takes time. It takes dedicated study and perhaps most importantly, it requires compassion. The world doesn't need any more armchair psychologists.
"The Mentally Ill"
Too often I hear pundits, politicians and the public alike say the phrase "The Mentally Ill." This single phrase, to me, not only symbolizes a lack of understanding about mental illness, but may well be a form of discrimination by some people.
The so-called mentally ill are people, first, who happen to be afflicted with an illness not of their choosing. They are people who may be living successfully or unsuccessfully with a condition. They are our brothers, our sisters, family members, co-workers, our friends and the strangers walking by on the street.
We need to refer to these so-called mentally ill as people afflicted with a mental illness or just people. To vilify and talk about people afflicted with mental illness in a way that implies we should be worried about them for our own sake. But this misses the point that we are not helping them for their sake.
Why do we stigmatize this issue? Why does our society treat people afflicted with mental illness as if there is a high level of taboo associated with being afflicted? The reason is simple: society doesn't understand the nature of mental illness. Many people afflicted with mental illness don't need help; they need people to understand. Other people afflicted with mental illness need treatment, and for people to be understanding and compassionate.
As awful as high-profile examples are, it is important to remember that high-profile events are high-profile precisely because they are unusual and unlikely. Making policy based on high-profile events is a surefire way to overreact and make inefficient and, worse, ineffective policy. A high-profile event is good time find out where a shortcoming of a policy or a failure of a policy might reside, but a high-profile event is not necessarily what policy should target. Doing so would result in the majority of cases being marginalized and a strategy designed around an unlikely event.
Considering that nearly 1 in 2 people is afflicted with a mental illness at some point in their life, remember that there is a good chance the so-called mentally ill could be you one day. If it is, how do you want people to refer to you? How do you want people to think about you? And how do you want society to treat you?
Paul Heroux is a State Representative from the Second Bristol on the Joint Committee Mental Health & Substance Abuse. Paul has a Bachelor's in Psychology & Neuroscience from USC, a Master's in Criminology from the University of Pennsylvania and a Master's in Public Administration from Harvard. Paul can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.