By J. M. Daniel
Since the horrific shootings at Sandy Hook, the usual debate around gun control has taken on a new facet that threatens rights in addition to those guaranteed by the Second Amendment. Those on both sides of the pro- and anti-gun rights argument have increasingly focused at least part of their attention on one misunderstood minority: people who suffer from mental illness. The idea is beginning to take hold that individuals who have some form of mental illness are now as much a contributing factor to mass shootings as the accessibility of the weapons themselves . . .
Maybe most insidious are the calls for the establishment of a federal database of the mentally ill. It would, of course, all be done in the name of public safety, to keep guns out of the hands of “mental defectives.” Calls for a government-sponsored program were heard only hours after the Newtown shooting. This same subtext is beginning to creep into the talking points of politicians, albeit usually as a call to improve the health services available to the mentally ill.
Various opinions on the subject are presented as if the proponents have a thorough understanding of those with mental illness – the multiple types, combinations, the varying degrees and behaviors, the specific treatments and drugs used. These self-appointed experts imply they know what goes on between psychiatrist and patient. Portraying it as a simple process in which the patient is asked a checklist of straightforward questions, their behavior is observed during office visits and presto-change-o, the probability of said patient taking out a theater full of movie goers is unequivocally established. Have any of these so-called “experts” walked in the shoes of the mentally ill?
I have. Because I’m mentally ill.
I’m a bipolar II, diagnosed 15 years ago. One who faithfully takes my medications and regularly sees a psychiatrist and psychologist. At the same time, I’m a wife, mother, successful business executive and artist. Sandy Hook has torn through my heart the same as it has so many others across the country. But I’m also scared.
I’m scared of becoming a pariah, painted with the same broad brush that so many now want to use to label everyone with a mental illness — as a potential threat. By their simplistic logic, I’m mentally ill so my diagnosis and activities need to be tracked . . . potential spree killer, though I’ve never held a gun and have no access to firearms.
A few facts: twenty percent of American adults — more than 45 million — have experienced some form of a mental illness in the past year, according to data from the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. That 20% includes everything from from mild bouts of depression to delusional psycho- and sociopaths. If 1 in 5 people have some form of mental illness, how many have you bumped into today? How many made you feel threatened?
The overwhelming majority of the mentally ill don’t stand out or create an environment of fear for anyone. Columbine, Aurora, Virginia Tech, the Clackamas Town Center and now, horrifically, the Sandy Hook shootings were committed by five disturbed individuals with severe mental illnesses. That represents .000000003% of the general population. So go ahead and shake in your boots despite the fact that you have a better chance of winning the lottery than being the victim of a mentally deranged murderer.
Those with mental illnesses aren’t the silent, creeping threats that’s being portrayed. Development of a database to track them — assuming it could be accomplished — would punish the vast majority for the acts of a tiny indefensible few.
Ronald Kessler, professor of health-care policy at Harvard Medical School who has led two national surveys of mental illness, said that some of the doubts about the prevalence of such disease are related to the stigma attached to it. As he told the Wall Street Journal:
If I told you 99.9% of people had a physical illness [over a lifetime], you wouldn’t blink an eye,” he said — especially if physical illness were defined to include minor ailments.
But in the current post-Newtown climate, the increased fear of being labeled crazy and potentially dangerous will cause many who need help to hide instead.
The social stigma associated with mental disorders is a widespread problem. Some people believe those with serious mental illnesses cannot recover, or are to blame for problems. The US Surgeon General stated in 1999 that: “Powerful and pervasive, stigma prevents people from acknowledging their own mental health problems, much less disclosing them to others.” Employment discrimination is reported to play a significant part in the high rate of unemployment among those with a diagnosis of mental illness. An Australian study found that having a mental illness is a bigger barrier to employment than a physical disability.
As with any form of discrimination this is predominately based in ignorance. An overwhelming majority of the mentally ill are fully functioning members of society. From samhsa.org:
“Although mental illness remains a serious public health issue, increasingly we know that people who experience it can be successfully treated and can live full, productive lives,” said SAMHSA Administrator Pamela S. Hyde. “Like other medical conditions, such as cardiovascular disease or diabetes, the key to recovery is identifying the problem and taking active measures to treat it as soon as possible.”
Bruce Link, an epidemiologist at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, said that even if there are elevated risks from some people who are mentally ill, they are no higher than for other groups, such as that between high-school dropouts and college graduates.
We’ve seen similar groundswells of fear happened before (think: Patriot Act). As the saying goes, those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. Now couple that with the exploitation of fear as an impetus for tracking specific groups of people so as to physically separate them from society. Then add current technology capable of capturing every aspect about each of us (you’re naive to think otherwise).
A similar process happened 70 years (sans the technology). During World War II, the mentally ill — defectives, as the Germans called them — across Europe were sent to “work camps” under the guise of protecting the general population. Jews, the disabled, the homeless and subversives were then also crammed into cattle cars and sent to join them later to be systematically exterminated. In our own country, Japanese Americans were labeled enemy aliens, uprooted from their homes and sent to interment camps all out of the same fear and ignorance.
An extreme example? Probably. But remember, something sparked those events. I hope the heinous acts of five mentally disturbed individuals won’t be the fuel that feeds the flames threatening to engulf the innocent mentally ill or the right to keep and bear arms. A result that would, over time, crush one of the the bedrocks upon which our freedom stands.