By Lynn Stuart Parramore / Alternet
The scene has replayed itself over and over — in Tucson, at Virginia Tech, at Columbine. On Friday in Connecticut, another unstable man has taken innocent lives in a burst of terrifying violence.
Inadequate gun control is only one half of the story. The other is the shameful job America does of treating the mentally ill. Today, 45 million American adults suffer from mental illness. Eleven million of those cases are considered serious. Most of these people are not dangerous, but if they can’t get treatment, the odds of potential violence increase.
Yet the mentally ill are finding it increasingly difficult to get help. Mental health funding has been plummeting for decades. Since 2009, states have cut billions for mental health from their budgets. As Daniel Lippman has reported in the Huffington Post:
Across the country, states facing severe financial shortfalls have cut at least $4.35 billion in public mental health spending from 2009 to 2012, according to the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors (NASMHPD). It’s the largest reduction in funding since de-institutionalization in the 1960s and ’70s. In fiscal year 2012 alone, 31 states that gave their numbers to the association reported cutting more than $840 million.
Thanks to the misguided austerity policies embraced by conservatives, more people are falling through the cracks. There are not enough psychiatric beds, treatment services or community support programs. Medication is expensive, and insurance companies routinely leave patients inadequately covered (the Affordable Care Act will hopefully address this problem by finally putting psychiatric illnesses on par with other health issues).
Mental healthcare workers have been laid off. Vulnerable people are neglected until their situation becomes acute – often after it’s too late. Many are incarcerated, often subjected to solitary confinement because prison officials don’t know what to do with them. Others are homeless – as many as 45 percent of the people living on the streets suffer from mental illness.
This situation is no accident, and it is not inevitable. Economics 101 tells you that when you have a massive economic crisis, the government must step in to fill the gap until the economy can recover. The United States government, unlike, say, a state or a country like Greece, does not have to balance its budget. The U.S. has its own currency and is well-equipped to provide stimulus money to states to make up for budget shortfalls. What gets in the way of meaninful action is political obstruction, not economics. Federal stimulus dollars and other grants have made up for some of the cuts to mental healthcare, but thanks to constant efforts to block adequate stimulus measures, not enough. And if conservatives have their way, budget cuts to programs like Medicaid will continue to ensure that high-risk people can’t get help.
With proper treatment, people with severe mental illness are no more likely to commit crimes than others. But without treatment, the potential for tragedy is painfully evident.
The Right’s program for public safety appears to be that everyone should have a gun and few should get adequate healthcare. That’s a recipe for death and destruction. Killing sprees are on the rise. How many more people will have to die before mental healthcare becomes a national priority?
Prattle On, Boyo says
What’s missing from this thinly veiled argument against gun ownership by law-abiding citizens is the fact that the psychotropic pills that are prescribed by MH physicians are well known to cause homocidal/suicidal rages, yet no one, including “alternate” news sources seem to be talking about that. Further, framing mass shootings as a reason to disarm the country is yellow journalism at its most dramatic. Let’s take a look at the underlying issues that are the cause of such events. It couldn’t be because Wall Street is enjoying record profits at the same time Main Street is homeless, hungry, under and unemployed could it? And by the way, the A.C.A. does absolutely nothing to address the cost of health care. It simply forces Americans to purchase a government mandated service or else face a fine from the IRS. But that is a separate matter.
“It is not just the weapons to blame: it is our epidemic of ignoring mental illness, and turning our heads instead of reaching out to offer help, and get professionals involved.
Of course guns should not be handed out so easily. That’s a given.
But let’s be honest: something is terribly broken in our mental health system. We know how to identify very ill people with mental illness. But we must do a much much better job of caring for these people.” -DIANE LILLI )
Society is to blame. It’s the ripple effect. Eventually, every negative and positive action reacts with the entire pond. We’re all connected, and mental illness is a REAL issue.
“Like most Americans, my adult son was distraught about Friday’s murders. How could anyone not be? But for him the news was especially unsettling. That’s because he’s one of “them.” He’s one of the ones being demonized on television. He’s been diagnosed with a mental illness. He’s been arrested. He’s been repeatedly hospitalized in mental wards.
Federal statutes already prohibit anyone who has been “adjudicated as (being) mental defective or has been committed to a mental institution” from buying a firearm. Connecticut, where the Sandy Hook shootings happened, prohibits the sale of firearms to anyone who has been found not guilty of a crime due to a “mental disease” or has been a “patient in a mental hospital within the preceding 12 months.”
Can we toughen existing laws? Of course. But the devil is in the details. Many of the police, firefighters and EMTs who responded to the 9/11 disaster in Manhattan reported feelings of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a mental illness. Many of our returning military veterans who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan have also filed claims for PTSD. Should we be afraid of them? What about the FBI agent who becomes depressed after his teenage daughter dies in a car accident? Should he not seek psychiatric counseling or take anti-depressants because it might cost him the right to own a firearm?
The National Institutes of Mental Health reports that about one in four adults suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. That’s 57.7 million people. According to a recent article published by Public Health Law Research, gun restrictions on people with a history of mental illness, such as background checks and waiting periods, had no significant effect on homicide rates. The restrictions, however, did reduce the suicide rate, suggesting that people with mental disorders, especially depression, are more likely to kill themselves than others.
Connecticut has an estimated 140,000 residents with severe mental illnesses. About half are not getting any treatment. Why? Between 2005 and 2007, the state closed 17% of its public hospital beds for treating psychiatric disorders. What happened to the patients who used to get help in those facilities? In my home state of Virginia, persons with psychiatric problems who are dangerous are being released to the streets because there are no treatment beds available.
In addition to debating gun control, we need to ask why our mental health system is failing us.”
– Pete Earley, author of CRAZY: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness.
Anna Daniels says
You are right for emphasizing the continued erosion of mental health services and to caution against criminalizing individuals with mental health problems. From a gun safety and public safety perspective however, mental health issues, including PTSD, plus gun access can be a deadly mix.
What mental health is offered is done so within a for-profit medical system. Treatments are designed to maximize profits not cure a condition. That said, we once were concerned about mental health. But Gov. Reagan closed the adolescent wards of the state mental hospitals in 1972 completely indifferent to what would happen to those mentally ill teenagers. They were never re-estalbished by any governor since. And now most of the state mental hospital for adults are closed. San Diego County’s one and only Psychriatric hospital down on Rosecrans has a licensed capacity for I believe 36 beds. Iknow that jail commanders for decards – through the 80’s and 90’s to today will agree, about one-third of the inmates in county jail truly belong in mental hospitals. In the 90’s I was part of a small conspiracy – since the Republican controller Board of Supervisors refused to provide funding to the Health Department, but they happily gave money to the Sheriff, working with Sheriff’s staff we quietly channeled money into inmate medical to provide the mental health services. America doesn’t do physical health; we left mental health behind decades ago. We continue to experience these tragedies because we are denied the opportunity to learn from them. I’ve had enough – have you?
Anna Daniels says
yeh JEC, I have had enough. What next? I go to bed a pessimist (getting close to bedtime) and awake an optimist.