In recent weeks, access to mental health services has been used as a distraction from gun control. While the lunatic registry is ridiculous, there are significant ways that the mental health field can help improve society and, hopefully, prevent another massacre.
In the weeks since the massacre in Connecticut, we’ve heard a lot about the need for an improved mental health system. For example, on the December 16th edition of Face the Nation, journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, national correspondent for The Atlantic, stated, “We have a terrible problem. The vector is easy access to guns and dangerously mentally ill people…The mental health community needs to step up in a kind of way and figure out a way to keep the guns (out) of the hands of people they know to be dangerous.” So now we in the mental health field are responsible for all of this violence and have it within our power to fix the problem? Wow! If only we had known beforehand, we would have done something about it!
Even worse was Wayne LaPierre, Executive Vice Chair of the National Rifle Association (NRA), who stated, “We have a mental health system in this country that has completely and totally collapsed. We have no national database of these lunatics.” It might come as a shock to realize that Mr LaPierre was incorrect in his facts, as 38 states do indeed have such a registry (in which certain mental health records are used in a firearm background check). But even without his inaccuracies, do I really have to even talk about what a stupid idea this national registry of the mentally ill is?
I would think that this would be obvious, starting with the numerous lawsuits those of us responsible for creating such a list would face (based on violations of confidentiality, privacy and civil rights) and ending with the sound of crickets in our offices because everyone would be too afraid of ending up on such a list to seek treatment. And that is completely avoiding the fight we would have over who would be qualified to create such a database and what the criteria would be for belonging on it. As many people have rightfully pointed out (including the National Alliance on Mental Illness), mental illness is very complex. There are different types, various levels of severity, and different reasons for it developing. No matter who ended up being responsible for the list, we also cannot forget that such a list has a high probability of being discriminatory, as even now the mental health professions tend to overdiagnose women and people of color.
But even without the registry idea, do I think that offering more counseling or hospitalization will stop even a single mass shooting? It’s possible, but kind of doubtful, because that’s way too simplistic. From what little is known about mass murderers (because the base rate is still too small to have much solid evidence upon which to draw conclusions), there are a number of factors involved, and mental health services can touch only a few of them. Instead, what needs to happen is a more systemic approach that includes increased mental health services, common sense gun control, a heavier emphasis on community, greater economic assistance for families, a decreased presence and glorification of violence in our entertainment, and a different way to socialize men. In other words, we need to significantly change our society.
I realize that that is a big proposition, so I suggest we start by increasing mental health services. I agree with those who propose making it easier to hospitalize the dangerously mentally ill, but really, we should go much further than that. We need to stop problems before they start rather than just dealing with them once they’re here. Depression, anxiety, substance abuse and other forms of emotional suffering are only symptoms of the larger underlying issues that must be addressed. In other words, we need to focus more on prevention.
That may sound difficult but, in reality, I don’t think it would be that challenging. However, in order to do this, we first must make mental health a priority, which it isn’t at the moment. In fact, mental health has been backsliding in importance ever since many state mental hospitals were closed, and the community mental health treatment facilities supposed to take their place never materialized or were underfunded (leading to a larger homeless problem). Just within the last three years, Congress has cut mental health services by $4.3 billion. Thus, if we want more people able to receive services, this must change.
But if we had proper funding, and mental health was made a priority, there are a number of things we could do. We could provide parenting classes for new parents, with developmentally appropriate refresher courses along the way. This would help decrease child abuse and neglect, and aid children in getting the proper emotional and physical care they need for success. Starting in elementary school, we could teach healthy relationship skills. This would assist in lowering rates of domestic violence, bullying, divorce and addiction. There are numerous other areas in which we could provide assistance, including sexuality, study skills, stress management, and vocational choice. And those are just the beginning.
I am well aware that the foes of gun control are just using mental health as a way to avoid blame and responsibility. I realize that they don’t truly intend to bolster access to mental health services, but if there was just a way to seize this moment and implement some of the very necessary programs that mental health professionals can provide, then perhaps the misery experienced over the Newtown deaths will have been worth something. I would hate to think that all those people died for nothing.
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