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Blaming the Gun-Violence Epidemic On Mental Illness Doesn’t Begin to Resolve It

| January 23, 2013

Picasso's 'Brooding Woman' (watercolor on paper, 1904).

Picasso’s ‘Brooding Woman’ (watercolor on paper, 1904).

By Milissa Holland

What do you get when you put a gun shop owner, a school board member and a sheriff on one radio program? A great, solid discussion on gun control. I thought a lot about what questions I would ask my guests on Milissa Holland Live last Friday, how I would include a lot of the comments written on Flagerlive, on my facebook page, or by email. I also found that a few of our leaders would rather not take a public stand on the issue. I found it refreshing that a few are not afraid to step on someone else’s delicate sensibilities, but rather speak up and find some common ground.

milissa-holland-sigSo thanks go out to local businessman Steve Nobile (owner of Home and Self Defense Specialists), School Board member Colleen Conklin and Sheriff Jim Manfre. None of the three has any interest in taking away people’s guns. Rather, they’re interested in dealing with the root of the issue: mental illness.

Interestingly enough all agreed that universal background checks should be adopted. Steve put it best as he described how this loophole in the law causes a greater issue for law enforcement with guns being used in crime. Our current law requires criminal background checks of purchases from federally licensed dealers. It does not require background checks for sales from unlicensed sellers, at gun shows or in private transactions. That leaves out about 40 percent of all gun transactions in the United States. Convicted felons, domestic violence abusers, and those who are dangerously mentally ill can walk into gun shows or flea markets and buy firearms from unlicensed sellers. In addition to gun shows and flea markets, criminals use classified ads and even the Internet to buy and sell guns without a background check.

After the kumbaya moment between my guests, the conversation shifted to how we deal with the root of these killing sprees. Mental illness was a common theme. And so it will be the focus on this Friday’s show: what do we mean by “mental illness,” and what can we do not to just label the issue, which also risks isolating it from pragmatic ways to deal with it.

If in fact we are going to seriously address the issue of mental illness in this country, then I suggest that the stigma attached to the disease needs to go away. Mental illness is just that–an illness. We have yet to learn all we need to about the brain, but there have been some significant findings in the last decade. Still, we are a nation that has chosen to either medicate or ignore altogether.

It’s not working. Enough with moms and dads and brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and pastors and deacons who are afraid to make public the private anguish of mental illness.

Let me be very frank about this. It is not easy to share this very painful part of my life, but I must: I have dealt with mental illness in my family for years, and am very familiar with this topic after finding my mother on her bathroom floor after overdosing. The loss of my mother in such tragic circumstances has been part of my journey, but it has also taught me, my sisters and our children what is so important about life, and the courage to stand up and speak out about the shame that is attached to those who struggle.

And to talk about it beyond the clichés. “They have a few screws loose.” “You know he’s off his rocker.” We’ve heard all the terms. We often laugh and dismiss the mentally ill in America, choosing to cross the street when we see the homeless veteran screaming and cussing at anyone who walks by. When it’s time for budget cuts, those most vulnerable often get thrown out first, among them the mentally ill.

As the debate over gun violence heats up in Washington, there’s plenty of talk about keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill. But who falls under that category? The term “mentally ill” means different things to different people. Would some people with mental health issues be wary to seek help and risk losing their guns? How do we target people with mental illness who use firearms? Could any of these tragedies have been prevented? No one knows for sure. But I sure as hell would rather try than have to be a first responder and look a parent in the eye and say, “Sir or ma’am, I’m sorry. But your baby is dead, killed in the classroom along with 19 other classmates.”

Too often the warning signs were there, but ignored for one reason or another. Not all people with mental illness break the law. But how many times do you hear someone say, “I tried to get them help”? The Newtown, Conn. Killer, Jared Lee Loughner (who shot Gabby Giffords, the Arizona congresswoman and killed six people), Seung-Hui Cho (the Virginia Tech killer), or James Holmes (the Aurora, Colo., movie theater shooter) are all individuals who were described as mentally unstable.

So what is our responsibility when it comes to the mentally ill? We are choosing to abandon helping them, but are quick to build a new prison to incarcerate them when a law is broken. We should stop living in denial. The two go together: We must address guns. We must also address mental illness. We must have the courage and conviction to put aside our political views and deal with the task at hand.

This discussion is multidimensional and requires a systemic change in how we address these issues in the future. I don’t want to see one more parent have to plan for their children’s funeral with these avoidable acts of violence. I know some feel that these mass killings are a rare occurrence. That’s true, relatively speaking. But if we as a society can overcome challenges to possibly stop at least one more mass killing, is it not worth it?

I want to challenge those who feel that guns are not the problem, but that mental illness is: Who is to judge who is or is not mentally ill? What steps can we take to help those that have those violent thoughts? Tune in to my show this Friday to continue the discussion. Please keep your comments coming. They are helpful as I craft the questions and challenge my guests on the answers.

Milissa Holland, a Flagler County commissioner from 2006 to 2012, is host of Milissa Holland Live on WNZF 1550 AM, Fridays at 10 a.m. Her column will appear here every Wednesday. Reach her by email here, on Facebook or on Twitter. While she’s on the air Friday morning between 10 and 11, call her at 386/206-WNZF (or 206-9693).

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14 Responses for “Blaming the Gun-Violence Epidemic On Mental Illness Doesn’t Begin to Resolve It”

  1. Jim R. says:

    Charles Whitman, our first shooter who killed a number of people seemingly without reason, was abused by his father who would have thought himself as just being strict with his son, for his own good and his mother was distant and never showed affection to him. Only one out of millions abused in the same way might react in this way, so can you call this mental illness?

    Harry Chapin wrote a song called Sniper about Whitman and he brings up his emotional isolation and lack of love from his mother in the song, well worth listening to

  2. Betsy says:

    I feel there should be a MENTAL ILLNESS test given to everyone who wants to drive or get a drivers license.
    Also, the same test should be given to anyone who is a politician, judge, or law enforcement. And I don’t mean some pansie test, I mean a real psychiatric ,medical, and physical test. To many “MENTAL” have hiding under the rug (so to speak) because they didn’t show the “drooling, spaced out look” that most “MENTAL” have……Add that to your test for gun ownership.

  3. m&m says:

    This is just another wish list item to say I did something to prevent it. Mentaly ill people have care takers. Should’nt they accept some responsibily??

    • Lynn Perry says:

      Actually, no. I was a therapist and program manager for a residential treatment program for years. I can tell you that, caretaker or not, if the mentally ill person is 18 or over, there’s not one legal thing you can do. They have the same Constitutional and Human rights that you do to make choices for their own selves. They, at this time, are not on lock down. A caretaker cannot change this legal fact. Their hands are tied. These people, like you, have all the legal rights in this country to come and go freely as they please. Please..change the laws. I would like to see that.
      And many people that are mentally ill are also highly intelligent. They know how to hide their mental illnesses well and know just the right things to say at the right times to keep theselves undetected. In fact, when they assault their caretakers..and many do, when the police come, the police don’t want any part of it. And even IF they ever see a courtroom and judge, (highly unlikely,) the judge wants nothing to do with it. The person that assaults may get a few days confinement in the same place they already live. Few every are sent to a lock down ward for observatinon or because they assaulted the caretakers. Many caretakers are afraid to lose jobs. They have famileis to feed. They hesitate to file charges against a client/patient. They are often threatened by their bosses that if they ever do file assault charges against a patient for assault, etc..or for any violence, they’ll be fired. So many are abused and end up havinng to put up with it. Some quit and file charges anyway. I have seen it. Nothing ever comes of it. No judge ever wants to hold them responsible unless the crime ends in a fatality or severe maiming. All caretakers of violent, mentally ill people already know this after the first week of work. But you would have THEM held responsible?
      Parents of mentally ill kids are in similar boats. There’s no real help for them. Juvenile detention does not want these kids. They’re ill. Foster care doesn’t want them. Residential treatment doesn’t work for them. The parent is usually told that the child is a minor and if the parent tries to get the courts to order therapy for the kid becasue of vilolence, the courts , many times, just send the child home and tell the parent to get therapy for this ill child, or to get psychiatric care. But most parents in this economy cannot afford that, so the kid continues to abuse the parents and siblings. The courts don’t want to PAY for the therapy. If the the parent reports abuse/asaults to police, it can be turned around on the parent/caretaker and the parent is sometimes sent to jail for child neglect and possibly abuse.
      Society does not want the responsibility of a child born with abnormal brain functioning. I have worked residential treatment for children and teens(briefly, and I got out QUICK!) and i doesn’t do anything. The staff grows to resent the behaviors. The kids and teens are only feeling more betrayed and grow more anger. ONe girl- age 14- was made to say “I’m slick, I’m sly, I’m a slut ’cause I’ll sleep with any guy.” everytime she went through a doorway up in New Hampshire. I reported this to the state Dept. of Mental Health and they did nothing, although other staff told them it did happen for a week. That place is still treating kids and teens as we speak. And the same person that orderedstaff to make her say it is still the lead therapist there. Should we hold those caretakers responsible when the courts and parents AND the Deptartment of Mental Health won’t correct this?
      This gun issue is only PARTLY due to , in some cases and not all, mental illness. Some people kill with them and are thugs and not mentally ill. They belong in prison. But there are many components to this gun violence. We have to tae each component one at a time and address it. Does it matter if the first one addressed is mental illness and those with these illnesses having access to guns and ammunition?
      I am ex-military. I used to have a weapon for missions and for training purposes. Otherwise, I was made to keep my weapon locked up in the armory. Common sense! Why don’t the same rules apply to gun owners? That is another law that should be legislated. It solves alot. People get gun permits, yet NO ONE comes for a home visit to make sure the weapon is locked up, there’s a child safety device on it or that the ammunition is also locked away and in a different place in the home than the weapoon. Gee, I put an above the ground pool in my yard and the city inspector came out TWICE to make sure I had my fence just so, I had an alarm AND the right lock on my pool entrance and that inside my home was an attached alarm that would go off to alert me if anyone tried to get into my fence! Why can’t we legislate the same rules for guns? But the NRA are bullies. And cash talks, so Washington isn’t really going to do anything about it, are they? -Don’t get me wrong. I am a HUGE believe in my Constitution and the Second Amendment rights. I have gone hunting. I grew up with guns for hunting in the home.
      There are many issues to address to slow down violence in the country. Each one has to be addressed seperately. Holding caretakers of people with mental illeness and neurological brain illnesses is not the way. I hope you’ll read this and think about that.
      We do need something in-between a prison and just allowing the mentally ill total freedom here. Thye are ill. Prison is not the place for them. But neither shoudl they be legally allowed total fredom on ur strets to kill or assault, etc.. They do need containment. Their human rights must be in balance with the rights of every other person in the USA to reamin safe. There do need to be residences that ARE lock down, so they can have a home like environment, while at the same time they are constantly monitored, observed for behavioral violence and , if need be, on total lock down. We have nothing like that, though. Change the laws to make that happen and ONE issue will gun violence will have been addressed.

  4. BrunoTars says:

    If I’m not mistaken didn’t an autopsy of Charles Whitman reveal a golf ball size tumor in his brain?

  5. RBS says:

    When I saw a psychiatrist to become a cop I was asked three questions:

    1) What country does the Pope live in
    2) Where does the Pope live in Italy and,
    3) What Continent is Egypt in?

    So, Betsy I gave you one of the answers and if you get any of the other two wrong does that make you suspect for mental illness. Give me a break!

    • Betsy says:

      If those are the only 3 question you were asked in order to PASS a Psychological evaluation for the police department…then my above comment is even more relevant . And please, do us all a favor and find another SAFER occupation.

  6. Jim R. says:

    The conclusion on the small tumor was it was doubtful if it had anything to do with it.
    Read the link

  7. Ron says:

    The argument that Melissa Holland advocates in her latest column that if mental illness is to be a focus of gun control, it must be much better defined. Wow!

    I think if I give a synopsis on the Theories of Crime we will get a better understanding of why it is so difficult to predict gun violence in an individual. I would compare it to finding that needle in a haystack.
    Theorists come from different directions, disciplines and backgrounds (physicians, biologists, psychiatry, social workers/scientists, sociology and economic backgrounds). Human behavior is involved in a range of activities, i.e., gun ownership is an enormous problem (mass murder, passive acts of tax evasion, political crime, juvenile delinquency, suite crime, street crime, white collar crime, organized crime, etc., etc.).

    1 Choice Theory – (Bentham Utilitarian, Beccaria). Also known as Classical School of Thought and “Free Will” Theory. The whole idea is that the threat of punishment will scare people to deter acts of crime.

    2) Biological and Psychological (Freud) this proposes that there are physical and mental defects ie, extra abnormal chromosomes, nature/nurture, aggression, hyper kinesics, eugenics. Holds the view that there are deep seated problems such as kleptomania, sexual and unconscious desires. The individual is unaware

    3) Cultural Deviance (Walter Miller)Study of poor local class boys (poor). No role model, fatalistic attitudes, impulsive, live for today and whatever happens – happens.

    4) Strain (Anomie) (Merton) Emphasis on power, money, status to be successful (Bernie Madoff)

    5) Delinquent Subculture (Ivan Cohen) Good is Bad and Bad is good. A product of society. Under pressure to do good in school, college, jobs. These young people give up to develop own way of life. Approval in the eyes of fellow delinquents. The more horrendous the crime the more you are respected.

    6) Opportunity Theory (Cloward/Ohlin) This maintains that an individual holds two markets of which one is dealing drugs, gambling, prostitution, stealing, fencing, because crime pays. It opens up the job market for low paying jobs or people who can’t find jobs, ex-cons.

    7) Social Disorganization (Chi) in certain neighborhoods people are not sure who is in charge. People are idle and unemployed. “A mind is a terrible thing to waste”.

    8)Differential Association (Sutherland) Association (show me your company and I’ll tell you who you are). Steers individual in direction of crime

    9) Social Conflict (critics) argue people commit crime when the law, controlled by the upper-class, powerful and influential define the behavioral patterns of lower society as illegal and immoral.

    All these social theories have one thing in common, the relationship between wealth (poor/ich) and crime.
    There is no ready agreement as to what to do. It is a matter of moving money in one direction or another and this causes the conflict. There is only so much money for law enforcement and the social programs for the poor, mental illness and neighborhoods. Inequity is viewed by sociologists as the problem. The classic liberal view is through more education, better medical conditions which I think Mrs. Holland views and job market to correct the problem. On the other hand, the conservative view is to build more jails, hire more police and tougher sentencing standards to eliminate the problems.

    • Jim R. says:

      Those on the top have been able to game the system so they end up with most of the wealth, and that’s one of the reasons we have crime, poverty, unemployment, no money for social programs and a huge homeless problem.
      It is strange that they can’t see that they are fouling their own nest.

  8. Anonymous says:

    A lot of individuals with mental illness have trouble getting or keeping a job, so it stands to reason that many are unemployed and without insurance. Milissa, can you tell us where in Flagler County adults with mental illness and co-occurring disorders without insurance get services that Flagler County tax dollars fund? A lack of comprehensive and appropriate behavioral health services in this area may account for the high incidence of suicide here. Maybe you can find out what happened to the grant money funded by DOJ that Flagler County and the Public Safety Committee received and passed through for provision of services and training.

  9. says:

    if we were to give our politicians a mental test before they took office we probably would not have a government because most of them talk like they have a paper axxhole with no fire insurance.

  10. Magnolia says:

    This is a big subject. I hope we are not now going to begin calling those who believe in upholding our rights under the Constitution “political”. If so, then to which political party does the Constitution belong?

    Are you aware that shortly after the Columbine shootings that a video game appeared which allows your children to recreate that shooting right in the comfort of your own home? This is where many of these serial killers are getting their ideas and are able to “practice”. These videos are still out there. And I’ll bet that 90% of the parents don’t realize what it is. Even the cartoons are children are watching are violent.

    Many states are dealing with “hatchet” attacks and killings now in broad daylight. The Oklahoma killings were done with explosives, not guns.

    99% of Americans are responsible gun owners. Banning guns will only serve to make us all more vulnerable.

  11. Stevie says:

    Using any criteria to ban guns won’t work. What difference does it make if a shooter who is already shooting people is mentally ill or not? The only way to stop the shooting once it starts is to kill the shooter or get the gun away from the person.

    Concealed carry gives the element of surprise to law abiding citizens. This is a huge advantage and the best deterrent. Criminals don’t know where or who the permit holders are unless they have targeted a gun free zone where it is illegal to carry a weapon even if you have a permit.

    “As a survivor of the Luby’s massacre, Hupp testified across the country in support of concealed-handgun laws. She said that if there had been a second chance to prevent the slaughter, she would have violated the Texas law and carried the handgun inside her purse into the restaurant. She testified across the country in support of concealed handgun laws, and was elected to the Texas House of Representatives in 1996.”

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