Blaming people with mental health issues is not 'meaningful action'
The following is a work of opinion submitted by the author.
The shootings in Newtown, Conn., are disheartening and incomprehensible. We seek to understand the mind and motives of the killer in an attempt to regain a sense of control and normalcy after such incidents, but are rarely successful. We also discuss taking "meaningful action," as President Obama is advocating, to reduce or eliminate such horrendous acts. Meaningful action is needed, but will not be successful if we target people with mental health issues.
The typical reaction to such events from politicians, journalists, gun and hunting organizations, liberals and conservatives alike, and some mental health professionals, is to cry out for restrictions on gun ownership for people with mental illnesses and for changing how those who are viewed as potential dangers to others are dealt with in the mental health system. Such actions would not be meaningful or successful. In fact, these actions will further alienate, disenfranchise, and harm a large segment of our population — and do so with no perceptible impact on the frequency of such horrendous incidents or general rates of violence in our country.
The reality is that between 5 percent and 7 percent of the U.S. population, approximately 15 – 21 million adults, has a serious mental illness, including schizophrenia-spectrum disorders, bipolar disorder and major depression. The reality is that mass murder is incredibly rare. The reality is that, even if the Newtown killer did have a mental health issue, he would represent only 1 out of 20 million people with mental health issues.
The reality is that mental health professionals are unable to adequately predict violence, especially mass violence. The reality is that murder in this country is overwhelmingly perpetuated by those who do not have a mental illness, although news reports never state "The accused killer did not have a mental illness."
The reality is that people with mental health issues are much more likely to be the victims rather than perpetrators of crime. The reality is that people with mental health issues already face debilitating, dispiriting, and disabling prejudice and discrimination from their government and fellow citizens. The reality is that more prejudice and discrimination keeps people from obtaining needed services. The reality is that coerced treatment ultimately drives a wedge between mental health professionals and patients.
Meaningful action in response to such an unspeakable incident would be for our politicians to take the lead in promoting civility, respect for others, and compromise in our culture. Meaningful action would be to have gun laws that may not be politically convenient, but will actually decrease the ability to kill many people in a short period of time and have some impact on the tens of thousands of gun murders that happen every year in the United States.
Meaningful action would be to quintuple efforts, using effective approaches, to eliminate prejudice and discrimination that harms so many individuals and loved ones who are affected by mental illnesses. Meaningful action would be to invest in mental health services that promote hope, recovery, and community inclusion, which would attract those who actively avoid services. Meaningful action would be to embrace, rather than demonize, a large segment of our population that is affected by mental health issues.
It is time for meaningful action in response to the horrible gun killings in our country. Let's make sure that such actions are fully informed by facts and rationality, and do not perpetuate worn prejudices and political expediency. Let's make sure that our desire to regain a sense of control and normalcy in response to such horrible acts do not lead to bad policy and further harm to an already estranged group of citizens.
Psychologist Mark Salzer, Ph.D., is a professor, and the chair of Rehabilitation Sciences, at Temple University.