Mental health. They are two words that are seemingly obvious in their meaning. They are constantly used in news articles, in the social service field, and amongst conversations with friends and family. This is because it is estimated that about 1 in 4 adults are living with a diagnosable mental health issue in any given year in the United States. This is a LARGE number. Now regardless of what your thoughts are on the DSM – the diagnosing manual used among mental health professionals – it is undeniable that the rates of mental health in this country are high and the services and resources available to this population are low. Perhaps in your daily life, personal or professional, you are not constantly speaking to or working with individuals who are living with mental health diagnoses. In this case, the issue is not as apparent or even relevant to some major decisions facing this country. Or perhaps you work with individuals who have a diagnosis and you operate under a strengths-based approach – as anyone working with the mental health population should – and you advocate that they are active, productive members of society and should be seen and treated as such. Or maybe you or someone you love is living with a mental health diagnosis and your life is a combination of strengths and challenges. These are all conflicting experiences that lead to a controversial debate regarding some of the largest problems facing our country.
Mental health is the leading cause of disability in this country, preventing people from adequate healthcare, sustainable jobs, and higher education. Mental health comes with a strong stigma attached. Crazy, demented, out of control, problematic, weird, etc. are all words I have heard when referring to someone with a mental health diagnosis. Of course if this is how our society largely views this population, those living with a diagnosis are not stepping forward asking for help. And for those that are brave enough to push back against the unwarranted stigma, they are faced with barriers to services due to limited resources and minimal capacity among service providers working with this population. Undiagnosed and/or untreated mental illness can be debilitating to the individual as well as to society.
We have seen this debilitation play out on the news with mass shootings: Columbine, Virginia Tech, the movie theatre in Aurora, and just recently the tragedy that struck an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. In each case, an expert or a family member/friend/neighbor came forward and noted the mental health diagnoses that the perpetrator had been coping with. In each case we were always left asking what services could have been provided had the perpetrator just reached out and asked or if the services were available in his area. This common factor among these shootings has led President Obama to announce today that he wants to increase background checks for individuals wishing to purchase a gun and add mental health criteria to the databases for these checks (among other provisions to decrease gun violence).
Since 20 children and 6 adults were killed in Newtown, America has been in a heated debate about what needs to be done regarding mass shootings. The NRA has been adamantly arguing to protect the right to bear arms on the notion that the only way to stop a bad person with a gun is with a good person with a gun. Anti-gun activists have been quoting research about the impact of strict gun laws and why our country is seeing so much violence with it. And our government has been treading lightly to mitigate these tensions while also pursuing a productive legislative response to this tragic issue. It has been nothing short of complicated. While these debates ensue, I have seen some of my colleagues and friends in the mental health profession questioning why the focus is on mental health. Their confusion comes from the concern that they work with so many individuals with mental health diagnoses who are not inflicting violence upon anyone. So they want to turn the conversation away from those living with mental illness.
I caution this diversion though. The mental health profession is absolutely right – the majority of people with mental illness are not shooting dozens of people on a whim. The majority of people with mental illness are not violent or combative. But that does not mean we cannot ignore the trend. I think about my profession working with violence against women. We know that the majority of rapists are men but that the majority of men don’t rape. That does not mean we just ignore the male population to try and solve rape. The problem won’t be solved if we don’t address men. We know that the majority of people in gangs are non-White but the majority of the non-White population is not in gangs. Again, we can’t solve gang violence if we address the White population; we must address the non-White community. Solutions must be targeted based on trends. This is why I 100% support President Obama’s decision to overturn the 15-year-old ban on the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) conducting research on gun violence. We must highlight the trends to inform our policies and actions to address this issue.
With all that being said, I think the proper precaution to take is not to solely focus on mental health. We need to dig deeper into the roots of violence – why are people inflicting violence, not just gun violence, at exponential rates in this country? Why are the majority of perpetrators male? We need to face our realities of the problems with gender, gender norms, and masculinity in our culture. We need to start genuinely trying to decrease poverty. We need to fix our educational system so that it is not fraught with corruption, poor academics, and burnt out teachers with no where to turn. We have so many issues to stare straight in the face if we want to get to the bottom of gun violence in this country. It doesn’t start with President Obama, the NRA, or mental health professionals. We all have our hand in the problem and we all need to cooperate to fix it.