OP-ED: Massacres, gun safety & mental health

The Morning Call, which is my local newspaper, recently published this op-ed that I wrote, following up on the Parkland massacre.  I’m publishing it here because it does touch on mental health, but specifically from the perspective of violence and publish policy.  First, remember, someone who is mentally ill is far more likely to be the victim of violence, rather than the perpetrator.  Second, I’m tired of hearing about, in the aftermath of these shootings, how we must repair our mental health system and then the only things that are done is funding cuts.

Anyway, read on for more.  I hope you find this useful

Seventeen dead students and teachers.

Fifty-eight dead concert goers.

Forty-nine dead club attendees.

Twenty-seven dead students and teachers.

These are some of the worst gun massacres in the history of the United States. And they have all occurred within the past five years.

We have reached the point in our society where kindergarteners are being trained how to cower in the event that an armed gunman barges in on their class. Teachers are now being lauded for laying down their lives for their students. There is serious conversation about whether or not school staff, including administrators, teachers and janitors, should walk around school with guns locked and loaded.

We have hit this low point in our society. But we aren’t powerless. We aren’t lambs being led to the slaughter. We are the United States of America. The country that beat the Nazis can surely be the country that stops senseless bloodshed in sacred public places.

We need real gun safety, and we need it now.

•First: Reinstate the assault weapons ban that was in effect from 1994-2004. It is harder for a 19-year-old to purchase Sudafed than an assault weapon. More to the point, the 1994 ban worked. According to one analysis, gun massacres and deaths from assault weapons tripled since the expiration of the assault weapons ban. Military-style weapons are responsible for almost every one of these crimes, and we can do something about it.

•Second, close the loophole that allows for individuals to purchase firearms without being subjected to a background check. If you want to buy a gun, you should always be subjected to a background check, and right now, you can legally purchase certain types of guns at certain types of sales without doing so. This massive loophole allows for terrorists or convicted felons to have access to firearms.

•Third, enact state Senate Bill 501, which would bar individuals who have a protection from abuse order from owning firearms and make it easier to take weapons away from those convicted of domestic assault. Many of the perpetrators of our worst massacres have been convicted of this heinous crime, and no one who beats an intimate partner should have access to a firearm.

It’s also vitally important that we discuss mental health. We frequently hear in this country that there is a need to improve our mental health system to prevent these types of massacres, despite the fact that someone with mentally illness is significantly more likely to be a victim of a crime than a perpetrator of one.

Indeed, opponents of gun safety often shake their heads, offer their “thoughts and prayers” and pledge to deal with our mental health system. That is followed immediately by … absolutely nothing, except attempts to repeal Obamacare and Medicaid expansion, both of which would fundamentally devastate our mental health system by cutting off funding, preventive care and hospital beds.

If you are opposed to gun safety measures, and want to improve our mental health care system, it’s not enough to say words that sound good. You have to stand for something.

Here are some suggestions. First, address the rising shortage of psychiatrists and psychologists by increasing reimbursement rates and Medicaid/Medicare slots for mental health care. Second, increase funding to critical and crisis care treatments, allowing for the creation of additional hospital beds to treat those experiencing a mental health crisis. Third, increase the reach of programs like the nurse family partnership and pre-K education, which have been proven to dramatically decrease mental illness.

Each and every one of us — from the most ill homeless person to the president of the United States — is never more than one moment away from a mental health crisis and running headlong into a system that doesn’t care about us. One in 5 American adults suffer from mental illness; 1 in 20 suffer from an illness so debilitating that they can no longer work. If you don’t care about the mentally ill, fine, but remember, this could be you or someone you love in a heartbeat.

There is no single solution to stopping gun violence, and individual and familial responsibility has an enormous role to play in ending this bloodshed. Background checks and banning the sale of military-style weapons won’t stop every massacre; after all, all of our laws and police activity don’t stop every crime. But our law enforcement — and the laws they enforce — do save countless lives and stop innumerable crimes every day.

We aren’t powerless. There are solutions. American ingenuity and know-how can save thousands of lives, and the only way to guarantee that the problem only gets worse is to do nothing.

All of us have an obligation to each other to make the world a better place, and we should be tired of living in a society which allows for over 13,000 gun deaths every year, including 17 dead children and adults on the floor of the freshman building of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla..

Mike Schlossberg of Allentown is state representative from the 132nd District.

The mentally ill are more likely to be victims of violence – not perpetrators

One of the common misconceptions of mental illness is that the mentally ill are a monolithic group of lunatics, running around, committing violent acts.  This is perpetuated in a variety of ways, including popular culture and the media, who tend to highlight and sensationalize the unfortunate incidents when someone when is mentally ill commits an act of terrible violence.

Of course, that isn’t the case at all.

Let me address this stigma in two parts.  First, as has long since been established, mental illness, like most physical disorders, exists over a spectrum.  Nearly 1 in 5 American adults has some form of mental illness.  Breaking that down further, however, reveals a far more nuanced picture.

First of all, I vehemently object to the idea that “mental illness” is a big block.  It comes in a variety of symptoms, severity and specific diseases.  As noted above, nearly 1 in 5 American adults have some sort of diagnosable mental illness over the course of a year.  Roughly the same number of 13-18 year olds fall into the same category.  Over the same time period, 1 in 25 adults suffers from a mental illness that is severe enough to qualify as a “functional impairment.”  At the same time, roughly 100,000 people, per year, have their first episode of psychosis.

So, first and foremost, let’s dispatch the idea that all mental illnesses are the same.  They  vary in a variety of respects.

Second, it’s important to keep this in mind: Being mentally ill makes someone far more likely to be a victim of crime, not a perpetrator of it.  I get that the popular stereotype of the mentally ill has led people to believe that this isn’t the case, but again, reality is very different than perception, and when you think about it, this makes sense.  Someone who is mentally ill is far more likely to lack complete control over their faculties, health, finances, etc.  As a result, they are vulnerable to society’s criminal elements.

Let’s take a look at the research.  According to a 2014 study by North Carolina State, roughly 24% of the mentally ill who were surveyed (out of 4,480) had committed an act of violence over the past six months – but 31% had been a victim of it.  Breaking it down further, of those who had committed an act of violence, 63.5% had done so in a residential setting, while only 2.6% had done so at school or the workplace.  This doesn’t make the act of violence any less important or tragic, but it does mean that the mentally ill are rarely a danger to the general public.  Unfortunately, it may mean that family members can be.

Taking this research a step further: According to governmental surveys, only 3-5% of violent acts come from someone living with a serious mental illness.  And this, again, makes an important distinction: A serious mental illness is more than just someone who gets periodically anxious.  It is defined as:

a condition that affects “persons aged 18 or older who currently or at any time in the past year have had a diagnosable mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder (excluding developmental and substance use disorders) of sufficient duration to meet diagnostic criteria specified within DSM-IV (APA, 1994) that has resulted in serious functional impairment, which substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities”

As a study from Washington notes, this leads to exaggerated views of the connection between mental illness and the general public.  This, in turn, leads to widespread stigma, discrimination, treatment avoidance and a lower quality of life for those who suffer from mental illness.

 

I suppose, ultimately, it comes down to this.  The mentally ill – from a mildly anxious teenager to the most severely schizophrenic homeless senior – deserve to be treated with basic human dignity and respect.  Stigma is so dangerous because it is pervasive, and any broad-based, inaccurate characterization of mental illness dehumanizes those who suffer and forces them to keep their illness in the dark.  Violence among the mentally ill is rare – tragically, becoming a victim of violence is a far more likely scenario.  It is vitally important to the destigmatization movement that we continue to fight back against all inaccurate portrayals of mental illness, including this one.