‘We need to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill,” say the TV commentators, liberal and conservative alike.
Pondering the Navy Yard mass shooting, they try to make sense of the senseless. Their comments about guns and mental illness nagged at me until I finally sat down to write to you, the public.
At first, the idea that guns and mental illness are an unacceptably dangerous combination sounds like common sense, so, you may ask, what is there to write about?
Well, first, as a psychologist, I know that people with mental illness aren’t a homogenous group — mental illness includes such disparate conditions as attention deficit disorders, anxiety, autism, dementia, depression, insomnia, learning disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder and tic disorders.
Most mentally ill people, even most who hear voices, are no more violent than the rest of us. Mental health professionals know that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Thus, the best warning that Navy Yard shooter, Aaron Alexis, might commit a violent act was his history of arrests for gun violence, not the voices in his head. Furthermore, to suggest the Second Amendment does not apply to people with mental health problems is, frankly, discriminatory.
The pundits making these remarks clearly have not considered the ramifications. Since most mental illness does not last a lifetime, but comes and goes, will the government require gun owners to report to their local mental health clinic for an annual check-up? Will gun shops refer potential buyers to the nearest psychiatrist for clearance (or Prozac)? At gun shows, will psychologists armed with Rorschach inkblot tests greet customers at the door?
Seriously, do we want people with mental illness to avoid getting help because they fear being reported to the ATF? Mental health professionals are already required by law to warn potential victims, and sometimes authorities, if a patient makes a serious, credible threat to harm someone.
How, then, can we prevent more mass shootings and other gun violence? Whether public safety is better served by more guns or by fewer guns is an argument I will leave to the gun experts. My expertise is in mental illness, and my argument is that public safety, and the broader public good, would be well served by improving access to mental health treatment. For example, if police officers who responded to Alexis’s call for help just weeks before the shooting had access to an on-call mental health specialist, might lives have been saved? Possibly.
Many obstacles block access to mental health services, including inadequate insurance coverage, lack of transportation and social stigma. Reducing these obstacles can help to prevent mass shootings, and there are many other benefits to be gained as well. Mental illness has high costs to society; examples include increased absenteeism from work and school, unemployment, disability, poverty, crime, delinquency, domestic violence, child abuse, school drop-out, teen parenthood, drug abuse, drunken driving and behavior-related medical problems. Improving access to mental health treatment can reduce these costs, saving money in such diverse areas as health care, education, law enforcement, incarceration and social welfare programs.
In addition, improved access to mental health treatment can help increase tax revenues by increasing worker productivity. So, in these days of divided politics, whether you cherish your right to bear arms or whether you advocate for gun control, here is something on which we can all agree: improving access to mental healthcare in America — it’s a win-win.
By Catherine Smithmyer
The writer is a Maryland licensed psychologist and director of Chesapeake Bay Psychological Services on Kent Island. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org