Well, here we are. Again.
Another mass shooting. Another time for us to talk about gun control and the NRA and innocence lost and the senselessness of it all. We also, like clockwork, talk about mental illness and how “crazy people” shouldn’t get guns because mental illness leads to violence.
Except it doesn’t.
I wrote the following after the Tucson shooting where Representative Gabby Giffords was so tragically wounded and so many others lost their lives. The words I used still apply. Here they are:
I always get a little nervous when political pundits and celebrity doctors start chiming in about the complexities of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, and then subsequently offended both when mental illness is somehow considered an excuse for violent behavior and simultaneously paints those who are actually seriously sick as “nuts” or “whack jobs.”
Mental illness can strike any socio-economic group; it certainly doesn’t discriminate. A larger percentage of homeless individuals, however, struggle with it than do our middle class neighbors. People aren’t diagnosable as mentally ill because they are homeless, but they are often homeless because of a mental illness and how it has (or hasn’t) been handled or addressed.
So, my thoughts on the tragic events of the past week are complicated, but I am encouraged that we will not stop talking about our mental health system when news about the shooting starts to slow down. Let’s make a commitment to our community to finally make behavioral healthcare accessible and affordable to everyone. Let’s educate parents and service providers, teachers and ministers, on what to do when you suspect someone you know is struggling with depressed thoughts, paranoia, mania, or other seemingly challenging behaviors. Not easy conversations to have, but potentially offending someone is a small price to pay for preventing a catastrophe.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration of our federal government reports that 61% of Americans believe that those diagnosed with schizophrenia are violent. The truth is “…the results of several recent large-scale research projects conclude that only a weak association between mental disorders and violence exists in the community. Serious violence by people with major mental disorders appears concentrated in a small fraction of the total number…” (www.samhsa.gov). I have recently heard that “fraction” is somewhere between three and five percent…of all those who are diagnosed with a mental illness. When the risk of mental illness is compared with the risk of violence associated with young men living in poverty, one sees that mental illness presents only a modest risk of violence. How often do we discuss the “obvious” relationship between 20-something, poor men and gun violence? It’s rare. We’d much rather focus heavy attention on the “nut job” than the “poor, young man.”
But back to mental illness among the homeless in Dallas…we see this daily. Over 90% of HCC’s residential clients have a DSM IV diagnosis. We have learned over the past 10 years that the best, most effective way to address this is through permanent supportive housing – a current buzz word that yields a bit of “Not in my backyard!” controversy. If you’re concerned about mental health care in America – and the shooting made you want to do something good for your community – one of the ways to act on those feelings is to support local agencies that provide permanent supportive housing. There are so many ways to lend this support – and I, for one, would be thrilled to have an opportunity to discuss the possibilities with you.
Try to have a happy holiday season…