Last summer, James Holmes walked into a movie theater in Aurora, CO and opened fire, killing 12 moviegoers at the premiere of The Dark Knight Rises. Police officers also found he had rigged his apartment with explosives. This past December, Adam Lanza murdered his mother and then forced his way into an Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, CT and opened fire, killing twenty children and six members of the faculty before taking his own life. Earlier this week, Aaron Alexis walked into the Washington Navy Shipyard with a shotgun, acquired two handguns, which he then used to kill twelve people before being shot and killed by police.
As these stories unfolded, information became available was that all three men suffered from varying degrees of mental illness. This intensely violent behavior is not exhibited by normally functioning individuals.
These men exhibited clear signs of mental disorders, yet none of them received proper treatment.
Therefore, it came as no surprise that after all three events, the conversation on social networks and in the media turned immediately to gun control and violence in movies and video games. Mental health issues received far less attention.
Mental Health Care
Stories about the navy shipyard shooter’s passion for video games came out mere hours after he had been identified. Speculation was rampant about the type of gun he used and whether a background check would have made it more difficult for him to obtain a weapon (he had one, and it didn’t). Yet, it took until the next day for the Associated Press to report that the shooter had a history of mental illness, including paranoia, a sleep disorder, and hearing voices.
The sad fact is that after each and every one of these terrible and inexplicable tragedies, this country wastes all of its oxygen, air time and political capital on a distracting, meaningless, morally negligent debate on gun control, instead of focusing on the one glaringly obvious thing that each incident has in common: mental health.
Regardless of where you stand on the issue of guns, please put that aside just for a moment, and consider the following:
In 2009, the National Alliance on Mental Illness gave the United States an overall grade of D on mental health care, and not a single state received an A. Oklahoma was listed as the most improved state in the country, but still only barely managed a grade of B. This was because the state formed a committee to tackle mental health issues, but other states have yet to follow suit.
As Wisconsin state representative Sandy Pasch put it:
“It is not a glamorous issue,..mental health is often one of the first things to cut … it’s not one of the heavily lobbied groups.”
This is the sad truth, but it comes as a shock when looking at how many people are affected by mental health issues.
By the Numbers
People love to tout the number of deaths caused by guns each year, so lets look at some numbers from the Center for Disease Control, shall we?
Of 31,000 gun deaths in the United States in 2010, approximately 19,000 (over 60%) were suicides. In fact, suicide was responsible for 7,000 more deaths than the entire number attributed to gun deaths.
Looking at it strictly from a numbers perspective, suicide should be a much bigger part of the conversation than it is currently. So why doesn’t anyone want to talk about it?
Ask yourself: Would the desire to kill one’s self be lessened if a gun weren’t readily available?
The answer is no, and anyone who disputes that is lying to themselves. A person experiencing that much mental anguish will find another method to end their own life, and those 19,000 lives were not helped by everyone screaming back and forth about guns.
Culture of Violence
Yes, gun violence in the United States is an issue, and you would be hard pressed to find someone who would dispute that point. But violence, in general, is a major issue in our country. That guns happen to be a weapon of choice for some should be less of a concern than it is at this point.
Andrea Yates, who suffered from severe depression and psychosis, infamously drowned all five of her young children in 2001. Mona Nelson is currently on trial for killing a 10 year old boy with a blowtorch on Christmas Eve 2010. Marilyn Edge killed both her children and then tried to take her own life with her belt.
No one would suggest having a national conversation about bathwater, blowtorches, or belts. So why do we allow the media to glorify these shootings for ratings while ignoring the larger issue of mental illness?
The answer is simple. It is because talking about states cutting billions of dollars from their mental health care budgets isn’t nearly as exciting as watching panelists yell at each other as they have a debate about guns. Piers Morgan, notorious for his anti-gun rants, won’t experience a TV ratings spike if he discusses how it is more difficult to obtain mental health care services in this country than many other types of medical treatment.
We ignore and stigmatize the mentally ill, while simultaneously expecting them to seek treatment for their illnesses.
Many refuse to seek treatment because they fear what others might think of them, and negative attitudes towards mental health care is one of the biggest obstacles to individuals actually receiving care. We laugh at the homeless man talking to himself in the street, or avoid looking at him at all.
We call many perpetrators of violence crazy and evil, yet they are neither. They are sick, and need help.
We wouldn’t mock someone for having a physical ailment, but we seem to forget that just because you can’t see someone’s illness doesn’t mean it isn’t there and shouldn’t be taken seriously.
It’s time to really have an honest debate about why these atrocities keep happening. But please, don’t let mental healthcare in the United States be ignored any more than it already has. Innocent lives are depending on it.