Another round of gun violence has triggered more talk about fixing the nation’s abysmal mental health care system. The man who slaughtered 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard last week was almost certainly mentally ill, and had shown repeated signs of psychosis.
The nation, including Ohio and Michigan, needs a renewed debate on the care and treatment of mentally ill people, followed by new programs and policies to reach those who need help. In the polarized debate on guns, the need for mental health policy changes seems to be the only thing that gun-rights and gun-control advocates can agree on.
During the past four decades, states across the country have closed psychiatric hospitals, often with little planning. New psychotropic drugs promised more enlightened and humane care in the community at less cost.
The idea had merit. Unfortunately, governments never fulfilled their commitment to fund community mental health care adequately. Many mentally ill people were never deinstitutionalized, as is often stated. They just moved from one kind of institution to another.
At least 25 percent of inmates in county jails and state prisons are seriously mentally ill. Others end up in homeless shelters or on the street. In America today, mental illness is more often criminalized than treated.
Injecting the issue of mental health care into the debate on gun control poses risks. Politicians should not, irrespective of their position on gun control, impose sweeping, indiscriminate, and unwarranted restrictions on anyone with a history of mental illness. Instead, the debate on guns and mental health care ought to focus on improving care and treatment.
Some forms of untreated mental illness, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, slightly increase the risk of violence. Most mental illnesses do not, however, especially if they’re treated.
Identifying every American with a mental illness would be impossible. Tens of millions of Americans have shown some symptoms of mental illness at some time. Should the government impose special restrictions on someone who was hospitalized for depression 15 years ago?
Much of the debate on mental illness, within the context of gun control, began last December, after Adam Lanza slaughtered 20 children and six educators at a Connecticut grade school. Lanza had Asperger’s syndrome.
But Asperger’s is not associated with violence. Nor is the autism-spectrum disorder considered a mental illness.
The national interest demands that local, state, and federal elected officials put the nation’s shredded mental health care system front and center. But blanket and unwarranted restrictions, as well as undeserved stigma, for anyone with a history of mental illness would neither improve the mental health care system nor make us safer.