‘Crazy’ label won’t stop gun violence

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Registered: 07-11-2006
‘Crazy’ label won’t stop gun violence
Fri, 01-18-2013 - 11:59pm

‘Crazy’ label won’t stop gun violence

Not too long ago, being diagnosed with a mental illness meant being banished from your family and sent to waste away in an asylum. Today, especially in places like New York, a wide variety of people seek treatment for everything from depression and anxiety to substance abuse, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

With the advent of Woody Allen and Dr. Phil, the stigma of mental health problems has lessened. But its persistence is reflected in a lack of appropriate health coverage for mental health treatment, as well as a public that’s largely uneducated about the effects of mental disorders. No place has this been more apparent — and damaging — than in news coverage and policy discussions surrounding the Newtown massacre.

In the aftermath of the shooting, a brouhaha erupted over gunman Adam Lanza’s autism, as though that diagnosis was related to his horrific act. It was not. And now, as the country embarks on a policy debate over how best to curb future large-scale gun violence, much is being made of keeping mentally ill people away from firearms. This is an ignorant, yet understandable, reaction.

In an effort to make sense of the senseless, we look at Adam Lanza and think that surely he and others capable of such intense brutality on masses of strangers could not have been in their right minds. We even latch onto untruths like the myth that the Columbine shooters were loners and part of a trench coat mafia. Anything to separate ourselves from the monsters we see in these perpetrators.

In New York State, a legislative package just passed that increases reporting requirements for mental health professionals, a move that could have a chilling effect on patients and their doctors or counselors. Classifying never-before violent patients as somehow unfit to enjoy the rights guaranteed to the rest of society  would not prevent mass killings and could even lead to more of them by keeping people from getting the care they need for fear that they will be considered a threat to society and forever branded crazy.

Keeping the mentally ill from owning firearms would not have kept Adam Lanza from one, as he did not use his own weapon and was never in treatment. Had he been, perhaps he would have found better outlets than senseless violence. Perhaps his mother would have been advised that the shooting range was not the best environment in which to help her son deal with his problems. 

Being strange, a loner, autistic or mentally ill does not make one violent and should not be criminalized. In fact, the New York State Office of Mental Health is circulating a fact sheet, ostensibly as an antidote to the misinformation. Among its bullet points are that most violent people are not mentally ill and that studies have shown only a weak correlation between mentally ill people and acts of violence.

Additionally, it points to media depictions as helping to strengthen negative stereotypes that keep many Americans from wanting much to do with people with mental illnesses. Joshua Greenfield, a Riverdale resident and an author who writes fiction based on his own experience, knows all too well the perils of stigma. “I was so terrified of the whole thing that I wouldn’t go near it, until three years later when I was in critical condition,” he said of treatment.

He was a student at Andover Academy when his father first noticed he was having trouble. By the time he got help in 1984, he was incapacitated. Only after he was diagnosed with manic depression (now called bi-polar disorder) and severe obsessive compulsive disorder did his recovery process begin. When events like Newtown occur, he says he can’t bear to watch the mentally ill get scapegoated. “If you’re scaring the large numbers of people away from getting help that they could use, maybe those are the people who turn into the shooters anyway down the road,” he said.

Mr. Greenfield doesn’t care if he’s kept from buying a gun. He doesn’t want one. But somebody who shares his problems from a part of the country where hunting is routine and psychotherapy less so, could face the quandary of treatment versus guns. The stigma is so real that Mr. Greenfield makes a point of being public about his journey, to encourage others.

Those who are calling for a better handling of mental health issues in this country are right. But we should do it by providing more help, more early intervention, more opportunities for diagnosis.  “The ones who have the guts to get started are getting better,” Mr. Greenfield said.  

Editorial: The Riverdale Press