Guest commentary: Guns, law and the mentally ill

Ira Bedzow
Guest column

How we view the effects of mental illness in this country depends as much on one’s stance regarding civil liberties as it relies on any actual knowledge or familiarity with mental illness. For example, after tragic and horribly public massacres, such as the recent shooting in Virginia, the media often describe the killers as mentally ill regardless of whether they were ever diagnosed. This label allows politicians who want to protect one’s right to own a gun to call the incidents “mental-health problems” and not “gun-violence problems” despite the fact that the two are seen to be highly correlated. On the other hand, calling the killers “mentally ill” allows those who advocate for greater gun control to prove how necessary it is, since a mentally ill person can easily pass a background check and acquire such a weapon. What is unnerving is that both sides agree that owning firearms is a national issue, yet the focus of the tragic event for each side becomes the firearm and not its wielder.

Our insensitivity toward mental illness is not based on our lack of facts. We know that half of the adult population will suffer from mental illness in their lifetimes and that 1 in 5 children will have a mental illness by age 18. However, knowing facts about mental illness in general and being able to appreciate how mental illness affects people are two different things. Our understanding of mental illness generally comes from movies and television commercials. As with our public debates, we learn about it superficially (as if treating depression is really like winding up a toy). Even those who are mentally ill seldom have others with whom they can talk in a way that is not mediated by social stereotypes. One reason for this is that psychiatry is no longer a profession that has the time to engage in therapy; that role has been given to psychologists. Yet those children who will become mentally ill by 18, and their parents who take care of them, don’t have the time and the money for them to see both, if either. The statistics show that only 41 percent of adults in the U.S. with a mental-health condition and only 62 percent of adults with a serious mental illness received services in the past year. According to a report by the Child Mind Institute, 80 percent of children with anxiety disorder and 60 percent of kids with depression are not getting treatment; also, 70.4 percent of youth in juvenile-justice settings meet criteria for a psychiatric diagnosis.

Many people go to their religious leaders to seek help, which speaks as much about our religiosity as a country as to our lack of social institutions. Yet clergy are often not trained psychologists and certainly not psychiatrists. Therefore, as much as they may want to help, they can only give the person theological support but not an ability to improve or even endure his or her psychological state. Families also are very often unaware of how a child may be suffering from a mental illness. This is not due to a lack of love or concern but rather to a lack of awareness. Despite all the books on the shelves about mental health, it is hard to think to look for something of which you have no idea. Even when one knows about a child’s mental illness, making sure someone takes their pills as a teenager like they did their vitamins as a child may show concern for his or her biology, but it cannot help him or her confront the social stigmas or insensitivities that come at that vulnerable age.

If new mental-health laws only focus on oversight and providing services to patients, then we might be addressing part of the problem but not coming any closer to a solution. What we need are resources to help those who are not yet aware that they might need them. We also need to provide ways for family members, community leaders (such as clergy and heads of social organizations) and teenagers to learn about mental illness and how to manage one’s condition appropriately. Proper medication and proper therapy go a long way; family and community support can disallow social alienation and the future risk of violence.

It is not that we shouldn’t think about our gun laws. Only, we shouldn’t think about them because of our “mental-illness problem.” Also, we should definitely consider our society’s approach to mental illness and the mentally ill, but its impetus should not be a national tragedy caused by someone with such a moniker.

Ira Bedzow is the director of biomedical ethics and humanities at New York Medical College and senior scholar at the Aspen Center for Social Values.