Tuesday, March 12, 2013
Before I get into the crux of my column, there are some issues that must first be explored. I must point out that former Congresswoman Gabriella Giffords, should be praised for the courage she and her husband have shown for her miraculous recovery from the tragic shooting in Tucson, Arizona in January of 2011. She is an inspiration to anyone who suffers any life changing event, and I hope and pray that she continues to reclaim her life.
With that being said, she and her husband, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, have put themselves in the spotlight on one side of an issue that both invites and even demands scrutiny. Especially when the primary cause of many tragedies is being routinely corrupted and ignored, resulting in many innocent people stigmatized as the scape-goats.
On a near daily basis, this couple has spoken up and called for tougher gun laws, including the banning of certain semi-automatic weapons. Along with President Obama, they indicate that it is essential that the mentally ill be prevented from owning guns as a way to protect Americans. Even more disturbing, they continue to classify individuals suffering from mental illness with those of violent felons. As an example, in a recent speech in Tucson, Arizona, he said, "The least we can do is a very commonsense thing to make it more difficult for criminals and the mentally ill to have access to firearms."
For many years, countless advocates and consumers have worked hard to create awareness that people with mental illness can function properly in society. However, it is the ignorance that Mr. Kelly is displaying here that condemns people with one of these conditions into a lifetime of living in a self-imposed underground. What he fails to realize is the sheer nature of mental illness. It is not a condition that is easy to diagnoses nor is it one that has clear boundaries. However, those diagnosed conduct a daily struggle for wellness, understanding and against the very discrimination that Mr. Kelly is advocating. For some emotional reasons, he is under the archaic assumption that mental illness is a crime unto itself. These comments are extremely harmful and will limit the lives of innocent people.
To clarify, it is now understood that people who suffer the indignities of one of these afflictions are no more violent than the rest of society. In fact, they are more likely to become victims of crime, at a higher rate than people deemed "normal". Additionally, many other studies have shown these conditions to be the number one direct cause of disability in the workplace. Many of these poor souls are trying desperately to find the proper treatment and recover, only to find little social acceptance, which is a massive roadblock. Even more dangerous is to be categorized with violent felons like Mr. Kelly and President Obama seem to find no guilt in doing.
What is routinely misunderstood is exactly who suffers from these disorders. Many are surprised to discover that it affects rich, poor, famous, not so famous, military personnel, politicians, sports heroes, first responders and the list goes on and on. These people wage a struggle for understanding and search for appropriate treatment. Mr. Kelly has inadvertently demonized an unlimited group of people who have done nothing more than get sick.
A more pointed example would be; he is telling police officers who develop mental health issues from vicarious trauma, that they are no longer fit to perform the work in their field, and that is completely wrong. With treatment, they should be permitted to resume their careers, and many have gone on to continue to be excellent law enforcement officers. I know that because I have met many of those who did just that!
Mr. Kelly was also quoted in that speech as saying, "if the background checks they're calling for had been in place, the man who opened fire at the store (where Congresswomen Giffords was shot) never would have been able to buy a gun." That makes a vast deal of assumptions, which fail to stand up to scrutiny. Chicago, Illinois, which boasts a powerful gun control law, witnessed 532 murders in 2012, 435 by guns. I venture to guess, precious few of those weapons were procured by lawful means. I have doubts whether the gang leaders and drug dealers who perpetrated most of those homicides would have passed the background check as proposed.
Let us now examine the perpetrator of the shooting in Tucson, Jared Loughner, and the true failures that led to this tragedy. Now serving a life sentence, he was a man who suffers from schizophrenia, and was clearly psychotic when he committed these atrocities. Mr. Kelly is correct that this could have been prevented, but not the way he believes. I agree this man should not have been in possession of a gun; however, he could have certainly acquired one by the same means that the murderers in Chicago have.
The true path that could have prevented this shooting was a modernized mental health system. One with proper funding, readily available treatment, and most importantly, civil commitment laws that do NOT allow individuals to walk around in a delusional state, like Mr. Loughner was doing.
It was not widely reported, but Loughners parents had attempted, on more than one occasion, to have their son forcibly brought in for needed treatment. However, until he became a direct threat to himself or others, the current law does not allow for forced civil commitment. Had his parents had this resource of modern commitment laws at their disposal, their son may have been in a hospital instead of at that campaign rally. What is even more bedeviling is that those laws have been virtually unchanged since that fateful day in January of 2011, even though similar tragedies have occurred in Aurora, Colorado and Newton, Connecticut.
Though this is an emotional issue, Mrs. Giffords who served three terms in the U.S. Congress, did not make mental health care reform an enormous priority. Though not alone in that inaction, the programs did and will continue to suffer a diminishing standard of care in spite of an ever increasing demand for services. This is not to say she is to blame for the systems undoing, but it is clear she did little to prevent the continued destruction. Once again, remarkably few changes have been proposed that will reverse this downward spiral.
I do believe that Mr. Kelly and Mrs. Giffords are remarkable individuals, and I applaud their desire to work for change. However, because of the loud voices on both sides of the gun control issue, it has totally drowned out the potential for true change within the mental health framework. We will continue to see suicide rates increase, families torn apart, promising careers derailed and more detrimental outcomes, with few calls for restructure.
One final point must be made in that this is not about ideology, or is it about partisan politics. Neither party has a copyright of responsibility for the systemic failure when it comes to treating the mentally ill. It must be remembered, after the tragedy involving Congresswoman Giffords, there were strong calls for a dialogue on mental illness. She and her husband were both in a position to influence that dialogue. Instead, they have challenged the instrument of the perpetrator, not the disease that was the true culprit. That in itself is an added tragedy.