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Gun Violence, Reporting and Listing Names of the Mentally Ill?

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

The shooting tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut has shaken the nation. As a result, gun control has become a heated issue because Americans are deeply divided on how to prevent future tragedies. Some people advocate strict gun control laws while others believe more citizens should buy guns and be trained in how to use them so that they serve as a deterrent against criminals and the violent mentally ill. As part of this debate some people have suggested publishing a list of those with mental illness within each neighborhood across the nation as a way of preventing them from acquiring guns. The purpose of this strategy is to prevent another massacre. Does this make sense?

This is a complicated question. How is it to be determined who is and who is not mentally ill? One suggestion is that a mental health worker, such as a psychiatrist, psychologist or social worker,  report any patient who makes a homicidal or suicidal threat. The problem here is that any human being, in the context of a heated conversation, may make a comment that might be perceived to be a threat but which is not. Is an angry statement an announcement of intent? Couldn’t this result in countless numbers of people being reported for no reason at all?

If a psychotherapy patient believes they must screen what they say for fear that their therapist will report them to the police won’t they censor what they say or elect not to see a therapist at all? Equally as troubling is the issue of confidentiality that is supposed to exist between patient and therapist. It is true that, if a patient reports their intent to commit suicide or to kill a certain individual or group of individuals, the therapist must call 911 emergency to have the patient evaluated and, if necessary, hospitalized. The targets of the homicidal threat must also be alerted. These rules vary from state to state.

It is frequently pointed out that the mentally ill are unfairly stigmatized. For instance, are the mentally ill any more violent than the rest of the population? Constantly, studies show that this is not so. It is estimated that only 4% of all violent crimes are committed by the mentally ill. According to forensic psychiatries, Michael Stone, of 200 mass shootings he has in his data base, only forty are mentally ill. In addition, those who are in treatment are the least likely to commit acts of violence. Does the fact that someone commits a murder mean that they are mentally ill, even if they committed a mass murder? That is also a matter of debate. It seems logical that someone who goes out and shoots many people is mentally ill. Clearly, this is not always true.

One possible answer to this question is to report to the police any person who is depressed, been to therapy for depression or any other psychological problem or is taking medication to maintain mental health. This could become a very long list and does it make any sense?

Shootings at schools have tended to be committed by troubled teenagers. They may have deep seated resentments, paranoia, and grandiose self regard. However, these young people do not fit into any clear diagnostic category.  according to Dr. Stone.

In my opinion, once again, those with mental illness are being targeted as the cause of acts of violence. It’s a from of scapegoating because it is easier to blame than to look more deeply into the problem. Rather than blaming the mentally ill, shouldn’t we be looking at our gun laws or lack thereof? We know that other democratic nations with strict gun laws do not have horrifying statistics of gun deaths as in the United States where it’s easy to buy any form of gun.

It is also true that there is a huge lack of mental health support that kids and adults can turn to for help. Why wasn’t the gunman in Sandy Hook ever referred for mental health treatment? I receive anonymous emails from young men and women who want mental health treatment but either cannot afford it, do not have health insurance or have parents who approve of treatment. In my opinion, a depressed and angry teenager should be able to get mental health services with or without parental approval.

The President of the U.S. is about to give his recommendations on how to prevent these horrible acts in the future, especially as they pertain to guns. Let us hope that he does not point the finger at those with mental health diseases.

Your comments are encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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