By Graham L. Champion
During our lives, most every one of us has at some time or another uttered the words “deliver us from evil”. It may have been as part of the Lord’s Prayer or after a particularly heinous act that we have witnessed or been informed about by the press or it might simply be the result of some action in our life that was particularly disturbing. Evil comes in many different forms from violence, to harassment to intimidation to mention but just a few.
In recent time we have seen senseless mass killings in a variety of different locations. Virtually every time one of these mass shootings occurs the press is quick to speculate that if the event was not terror related that it must have been committed by someone who is mentally deranged. Mental illness has become the go to explanation for why someone goes out and shoots up the landscape. Just as predictably the discussion goes to the issue that we, as a society, need to find a way to better identify those with mental health issues and prevent them from having access to firearms. It is without question that those individuals living with a serious and chronic mental illness, during times of crisis, should not be allowed to purchase a firearm. With that premise in mind, we, as a society, must begin to destigmatize mental health issues and provide treatment for those living with a diagnosed mental health issue.
One of the biggest challenges for someone living with a diagnosed mental illness is the lack of understanding of their illness by society. They live with the perception by many that they are “crazies” or that they are “deranged”. In many instances, mental illness is referred to as a “behavioral health” issue. Mental illness is no more a “behavioral health” issue than is diabetes or heart disease or cancer. Serious mental illness is a biological brain disorder. Behavior is rooted in choice. Behavior can be changed by an individual by making life choices. Nobody would ever choose to have Bi-Polar Disorder or Schizophrenia just as nobody would chose to have diabetes or heart disease or cancer. The difference in recognizing and treating serious mental illness and these other health issues is that if a person presents at an emergency room with chest pains the staff will jump to action and immediately move the person with chest pains to treatment. On the other hand, if someone presents at an emergency room in a mental health crisis they are ushered to an area to “stabilize” while, if they are lucky, the staff at the emergency room will attempt to schedule an appointment with a psychiatrist sometime in the future. Someone presenting to an emergency room in a mental health crisis is as likely just as at risk of dying as that person with the chest pains. Further, left untreated, the person in crisis very well could be a danger to others. Is it right to treat these two crises with so different an attitude or attention? Absolutely not.
As a result of the way people with mental illness are attended to by the healthcare system in general, many choose to self-medicate. Others refuse to subject themselves to the stigma of admitting they have a mental health problem when they believe that they will be treated as second-class citizens. Questions have been raised about why some of the shooters such as the one at Sandy Hook were not diagnosed with a mental health issue. Again, in many instances the mental health diagnosis might have been recognized but the physician was “reluctant” to put a “label” on an adolescent for fear of branding that child as mentally ill. What is a greater disservice to the adolescent, and ultimately to society, a proper diagnosis and treatment or refusing to call the illness what it is. In today’s world, would a physician tell a cancer patient that they have consumption? Would they tell a heart patient that they have low energy?
As we make the statement “Deliver us from evil”, we need to realize that the despicable acts we think of when we make that statement are not the only evils from which we need to be delivered. We also need to consider the stigma ascribed to someone living with a mental illness and just how that stigma many times prevents adequate treatment of his or her illness. Simply preventing someone with a mental illness from purchasing a firearm is not the solution. Broad based statements about keeping the mentally ill from buying a gun ignore the fact that in any given year one in five people in the United States will have a connection to mental illness. Mental illness comes in many forms and degrees. Be it depression, either chronic depression or reactive depression when someone loses a job or a loved one, or schizophrenia or substance abuse 20% of our citizens will be touched by a mental illness every year. We need to help those who need help and not find ourselves shooting the wounded out of fear of the unknown and misunderstood.
Graham L. Champion is a mental health advocate and former Member of the national Board of Directors of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. He can be reached at [email protected]