Gun Reform or Mental Health Reform?
Nancy Lanza did not intend to raise her son Adam, an academically bright, yet socially awkward child, as a brutally callous murderer of 26 innocent children and educators. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold did not plan on being social outcasts or suffer from debilitating depression. Thirty-two people at Virginia Tech couldn't have known that their demise would come at the hands of a severely anxious and obsessive classmate.
In the aftermath of the last 10 years similar mass school shootings, the debate around both gun control and mental health care is finally heating up in a significant way. But the conversation that needs to be be formulating in the homes of Americans, rather than on Capitol Hill, should focus on how improving our perceptions around mental health can benefit our ability to cope with tragedy.
Exasperated parents often look to scapegoat mental illness, depression, anxiety and obsessive behavior to ease the pain of their loss. But is this the answer that will save those who may be at risk to future violence?
Following the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the national debate for gun control and proposed reforms moved to the forefront of political discussion. President Obama and Vice President Biden began what will be a tireless effort to reform the ways in which Americans obtain and use firearms and curb gun violence.
But many Americans still perceive this dilemma to be at the hands of the mentally ill or children who come from broken homes. The notion that “in order to stop crime, we must stop gun access to the mentally ill” just doesn't get at the root of the problem.
Vast majorities of people diagnosed as mentally ill or suffering from psychiatric disorders do not commit murderous or violent acts. Data from the National Center for Biotechnology Information linked only 15 percent of “serious” or “major” mental disorders (schizophrenia, paranoia, melancholia) to those committing violent crime. Frightening statistics reveal that individuals with problems related to alcohol or substance abuse have a 10 to 40 percent greater probability of committing violence than those suffering from schizophrenia. Statistically, an individual suffering from “mild” or “manageable” mental disorder is no more likely to commit a homicide than an individual deemed by society as mentally healthy.
Behavioral research can assess and determine those predisposed to violent tendencies, but the national debate still centers on a causal relationship between mental capacity and a predisposition to commit a violent crime. Clinically there is no real correlation between mental capacity and violent offenders. "Most violent behavior is exhibited by young men who are not explicitly psychotic. They tend to be paranoid loners who hold a grudge towards society or their environment, and are full of rage,” said Dr. Lawrence Beck, a neurologist formerly of Mt. Sinai Hospital.
If we want to limit the crimes committed by the small percentage of those who suffer from “major” mental disorders, we should first reform our way of thinking about mental health as well as revise our current health care system. Our first line defense against violent crimes from the mentally ill should include: investing in better screening, proactive measures for treatment, and most of all, education on the well-being of those with mental illnesses.
Following the deadly school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) executive director Michael Fitzpatrick noted such improvements to mental health services will be necessary to establishing a proactive health care system in a policy memo to President Obama. "Strategies for increasing the number of qualified mental health professionals, including providers of peer and family support services, must be an integral part of fixing our nation’s broken mental health system," Fitzpatrick told Campus Progress.
According to NAMI, states have cut $1.8 billion from mental health budgets during the recession. States like Alaska and Vermont have gone so far as make sweeping cuts to long-term treatment facilities, forcing patients seeking help with mental disorders into already crowded emergency rooms with little-to-no specialization in disorders.
Ailments that everyday children and students suffer, ranging from depression, anxiety, ADHD, eating disorders and schizophrenia all fall within the range of standard disorders. Clearly, the 60 million Americans who experience some form of mental illness cannot predict how their condition may metastasize in the coming years.
Emily Roseman a reporter for Campus Progress.