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Looking Beyond Stricter Gun Control: Gun Violence and Mental Health Care

June 18, 2013

It has been six months since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School and very little progress has been made toward reducing the number of gun related deaths in the U.S.  Amidst a weekend of gun violence, a bill that will expand background checks on gun sales sits in the Senate after failing to be passed.  This bill, while it will not stop gun related violence, may begin to chip away at the real issues surrounding gun violence, particularly mass shootings: mental health care.

Just this past weekend, gunshots were heard all over the country.  On Saturday June 17 in Omaha Nebraska, four shootings occurred in less than one hour, leaving three people dead and two in critical condition.  Early Sunday morning, a fifth shooting occurred, killing two more people.  Beginning Friday June 14, multiple, apparently unrelated, shootings took place in Chicago, Illinois.  By the end of the weekend, seven people died and at least 46 were wounded.  These were not the only shootings throughout the weekend.  Cities around the nation were touched by this violence and many families began to grieve for their lost and injured loved ones.  Even in the small city of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, right next door to my miniscule, quiet hometown, four people were sent to the hospital on Sunday because of gunshot wounds from two separate shootings.

Amidst all this violence, the bill to expand background checks on gun sales is sitting in the Senate.  The bill, co-authored by Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA) began to be pushed in the wake of the shooting at Sandy Hook.  The Senate failed to pass the bill on a 54-46 vote in April – just six votes shy of the 60 votes needed for the bill to pass. Senator Manchin continues to look for additional support for his bill and hopes for another vote, but there is no sign that the 60 support votes will be reached.  Jonathan Kott, a Manchin aid, said, “[Senator Manchin] believes that it just makes sense to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and those found severely mentally ill.”

The National Institute of Mental Health reports that about 1 in 17 Americans are affected by serious mental illnesses, including schizophrenia, major depression and bipolar disorder.  Mother Jones Magazine compiled a data base of 62 mass shootings in the past 30 years in the US.  Their research showed that in 40 of the 62 cases, the shooter had displayed previous signs of mental illness.  In seven of the cases, it was unclear if there were any prior signs and in 15 of the cases, there were no prior signs.

In 2009, the Schizophrenia Bulletin found that someone with a psychotic illness killed a stranger at a rate of 1 per 14.3 million people per year, making this extremely rare.  You are 14 times more likely to die of a flesh-eating disease than be killed by a stranger suffering from severe mental illness.  While the majority of people with severe mental illness are unlikely to be the culprit of a mass shooting, the fact still remains that in two-thirds of the 62 mass shootings in the past 30 years, the shooters had displayed prior signs of mental illness.

Since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, questions have been raised about the mental health of shooter Adam Lanza.  He is not the only shooter of a mass shooting to be determined mentally ill. Jared Lougher, culprit of the Arizona shopping center shooting spree in 2011, was diagnosed with schizophrenia six months after the event.  Virginia Tech shooter Seunh-Hui Cho was declared by a judge to be mentally ill two years before he committed his atrocious act.  A recent book by child psychologist, Peter Langman, stated that Columbine High School shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were not just bullied, they were in fact also mentally ill.

Dr. Carol Bernstein, a psychiatry professor at NYU Langone Medical Center says that most mentally ill patients are not dangerous.  This statement appears to be overwhelmingly true.  The majority of mentally ill people will not commit a crime, including one of gun violence, but the majority of mass shootings in the past 30 years were committed by people with a mental illness.  The key to reducing the number of gun-related deaths may lay in a combination of stricter gun laws, like Senator Manchin’s bill, and a restructuring of our mental health care system.

Mental health care should be widening and specifically targeting those traits, like prominent antisocial, narcissistic, and sadistic behavior that are noticeable in culprits of shootings.  But instead of growing and becoming more efficient, state general funding for mental health care has decreased by an estimated $4.35 billion nationwide since the budget cuts in 2009.  Since 2009, 3,222 psychiatric hospital beds are no longer available and another 1,249 may soon disappear because of additional closures.  According to Dr. Robert Glover, that is about 10 percent of all state psychiatric hospital beds gone.

Expanding and improving the mental health care system will not solve all of our problems.  In fact it may barely solve any.  Connections between mental health and gun violence are still unclear, with facts pointing in both directions.  But if even one of Adam Lanza, Jared Lougher, Seunh-Hui Cho, Erica Harris, Dylan Klebold, or the multiple shooters from this past weekend were denied a gun because of expanded background checks or were given the mental health care they needed, then less families would be grieving for their lost loved ones and less children would be afraid to walk into school for fear that they will become a victim of gun violence.  That would be progress.

Be sure to tune in today and watch Vice-President Biden deliver remarks on reducing gun violence at 1:15PM.

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