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The Role of Mental Health in President Obama’s Gun Control Plan

President Obama’s recently-proposed actions on gun safety include a number of suggestions for increasing access to mental healthcare. You can read more about these plans here.

I applaud these efforts to curb gun violence in our society, and appreciate the calls for more funding in mental health issues and more social workers, counselors, and psychologists with a focus on serving students and young adults. These cost money in a time when everyone is advocating cutting government spending, so that will certainly be part of the debate I’ll look forward to. I suspect I’ll watch the rest of the nationwide reaction to this argument with a mix of amusement and horror. Much of it seems to involve the word “tyranny,” and to be clear – if you are using the word “tyranny” to describe the president’s latest acts, well … that word does not mean what you think it means.

For the moment, however, I’d like to focus simply on the issue of mental illness and its role in this debate.

Most arguments in American political life are structured dialectically: there is a pro and a con, and very little middle ground. The discussions after the tragedy in Newtown are no exception; there are advocates for fewer guns and, with the NRA’s public statements advocate for more guns. Where is the middle ground? My fear, and the reason for writing, is that middle ground may be sought, and found, in the perceived correlation between gun violence and mental illness.

It has entered public discourse as more or less a given; better scrutiny, even treatment, of those with mental illness can reduce the risk of mass shootings in public school settings. While it is true that some perpetrators of violent acts may suffer from mental illness, we must be careful not to confuse correlation with causation. David Sirota suggests that since nearly all of the shooters in school settings were young white men, we should be asking questions related to that population: are the shootings another kind of reaction of the “angry white male” as victim sociological phenomenon? The question is provocative and not meant to be taken literally. It does point out, however, that correlation does not mean causation.

Likewise, with the mentally ill, Mental Health America in a Philadelphia Inquirer editorial Dec. 23 states that only “a tiny fraction” of violent crimes are committed by people with mental illness. A University of Chicago study found that if we eliminated major mental health disorders, we would reduce violent crime by only 4.3 percent. Why then are we so quick to assume mental illness to be causative of violence?

In a nation scarred by trauma, explanations provide some relief, since they suggest solutions and thereby the prospect of gaining greater control over dangerous, seemingly random and unpredictable events. There are always demographic correlations to be made, but the ones that end up seeming causative are those that point to demographic groups that are already stigmatized, marginalized, or oppressed. Even though a small percentage of the population commits the vast majority of these shootings, it would be politically suicidal for anyone to seriously take up the banner of Caucasian causation for these shootings. Such an argument lacks credibility in the public mind. Mental illness may seem more credible, but that does not make it true.

This is not to say that more resources are not needed for people with mental illness: housing, therapy, community supports. If that is a result of the discussion, then that might be a positive outcome – but not at the expense of the dignity and image of those who suffer. That will only increase the isolation and alienation of people who might otherwise seek treatment. They deserve support in the same way that all people who suffer from illness deserve support. What is remarkable, though it often gets lost in the discussion, are the quiet nameless acts of heroism and courage each day on the part of people suffering from mental illness, many of whom we at Resources for Human Development know and work with personally, who do not resort to violence, who resist the inclination and temptation to treat violence as a problem solving strategy, an inclination deeply bred into the cultural fabric of American social life.

Here, I believe, is the root of the matter. The American legal system has systematically deconstructed the common law doctrine of self defense – which originally required a “duty to retreat” at the hands of a threat, until one’s back was literally “up against a wall” – so that the room to retaliate has grown so large that, in “standing one’s ground,” one believes one can, in the case of George Zimmerman, actually pursue and kill someone (i.e. Trayvon Martin) identified simply as a perceived threat. It is the Bush Doctrine of preemptive strike brought home to settle matters of domestic dispute.

It is fitting, or perhaps ironic, that the discourse on Sandy Hook should bring us to the foothills of the birthday of Martin Luther King. Dr. King, for a brief but important moment in our history, helped us to change our paradigm. Non-violence became a reputable and effective strategy for change. The NRA’s suggestion brings to mind a dynamic very familiar to those of us who work with addiction: the idea that only more of what causes the problem can solve the problem. We have developed an enormous “violence tolerance,” a gun tolerance, and we require something as shocking as a mass murder in an elementary school to bring home the truth, to make us face our own bottom. The thousands of gun deaths each year, many of them children, many in urban areas, have not been enough.

If we were to use Dr. King’s birthday this year as a potential opportunity to change our paradigm, to strive for inclusion rather than exclusion, to be creative rather than addictive or accusatory in our policy responses, perhaps we can find our middle ground. Non-violence is a way of building community, of welcoming people in. How do we deal with difference? If we further marginalize and equate with violence, we increase the very alienation, anxiety and anger that leads to the desire for revenge.


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