Americans for Responsible Solutions

I’m concerned about a letter I received in the mail yesterday. It was from Gabby Giffords and Mark Kelly at Americans for Responsible Solutions PAC. They wanted my money, of course, and they had a petition to Congress for me to sign saying I’ll only vote for candidates who support requiring background checks for all gun purchases. Okay, that makes sense to me; considering the hoops one must jump through to get a driver’s license (a privilege, not a right), get a job, receive health care, etc., a 5-minute background check before buying a gun seems like very little to ask. Who knows how many lives it could save?

My concern is with the wording of their message, particularly regarding people with mental illness (such as myself). A quote from Gabby Giffords included in the petition shamed politicians for blocking legislation that would have made it harder for “criminals and people with dangerous mental illnesses” to acquire guns. The first sentence on the Americans for Responsible Solutions About page describes the person who shot Gabby Giffords as a “mentally ill young man.” They list who should be banned from buying guns via Criminal Background Checks: “dangerous people like criminals, terrorists, and the mentally ill.” It is important to prevent gun ownership by “criminals, domestic abusers, the seriously mentally ill, and other dangerous people.” Even in their Poll where they offer addressing mental illness as a solution that visitors can support, their focus is not on actually helping those of us with mental illness but on identifying and treating us “before they commit heinous crimes.”

People with mental illness are not a threat to society. We’re a threat to ourselves. During a panel on “Guns in America,” Richard Friedman (a professor of clinical psychiatry and director of a psychopharmacology clinic) said that:

only 4 percent of gun deaths annually in the United States can be attributed to individuals with mental illnesses ­— far lower than most people think. If America could hypothetically solve the problem of mental health issues leading to violence, “you’re likely to see a reduction in suicides, not homicides.”

Most of the people who die as a result of gun violence commit suicide; the majority of suicides are committed by people with mental illnesses, such as depression. According to Jeffrey Swanson (a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences), “federal guidelines preventing individuals with mental illnesses from obtaining firearms are ineffective at preventing violent behavior, particularly mass killings.” What we – people with mental illness and society as a whole – really need is proper mental health care to reduce the number of suicides.

This point is also emphasized in Margot Sanger-Katz’s article, “Why Improving Mental Health Would Do Little to End Gun Violence.” The people with mental illness who are at the highest risk of committing violence against another person 1) are unlikely to use a gun and/or commit murder and 2) typically do so early in the course of their illness, before there is an opportunity to “identify and treat” them (to use Giffords and Kelly’s terminology).

There’s a huge risk that the message Giffords and Kelly are sending will perpetuate the untrue stereotype that people with mental illness are violent and dangerous, increasing the stigma we face. That’s really the last thing we need! Their call to use background checks to keep guns out of the hands of people with mental illnesses so we won’t commit heinous crimes only addresses a tiny portion of the problem. I’ve made a series of diagrams to illustrate this point:

There is only a small overlap between people who commit violence against others and people who have mental illnesses. Please note that the relative sizes of the circles do not accurately reflect the relative sizes of these populations.

There is only a small overlap between people who commit violence against others and people who have mental illnesses. Please note that the relative sizes of the circles do not accurately reflect the relative sizes of these populations.

Of the small percentage of people with mental illness who commit violence against others, only a small percentage use a gun to do so.

Of the small percentage of people with mental illnesses who commit violence against others, only a small percentage use a gun to do so.

It is rare for a person with mental illness who commits gun violence to have an official diagnosis. It is even less likely that the individual is receiving - or has ever received - mental health care.

It is rare for a person with mental illness who commits gun violence to have an official diagnosis. It is even less likely that the individual is receiving – or has ever received – mental health care.

We need society to provide us with better mental health care and better access to mental health care, so we can care for and avoid harming ourselves.

Preventing violence – particularly gun violence – is a whole separate issue. I suggest looking at our cultural values, particularly how violence / gun violence is portrayed glamorized in mainstream media (TV, news, movies, etc.). Who commits the violence, and against whom? Why? In what contexts? (e.g. gender norms; poverty; age/generational factors; race – including white people; access to education, healthcare, and/or employment; etc.) How can we change society to make it a safer place for everyone?

Maybe the first thing we should look at is the fact that gun ownership is a right, but access to safe, effective, and affordable food, housing, health care, education, employment, and transportation is not!

BREAKING: Obama Starts Having The Grownup Conversation About Guns That The NRA Doesn’t Want To Have

BREAKING: Obama Starts Having The Grownup Conversation About Guns That The NRA Doesn’t Want To Have.

It’s so good to see the president taking real action to strengthen gun control, reduce violence, and protect the rights of all Americans to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. I especially appreciate that he acknowledged people with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators. It’s important for us to have powerful advocates. One of his measures is to improve access to mental health services, something people with mental illness desperately need.

But for the necessary changes to take place, everyone needs to act.

Please contact your senators and representative and urge them to support the changes President Obama has called for.

Access to Guns vs Mental Health Services

I was very sad to learn of the massacre that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School in CT on Friday. It is devastating to think that someone could be so deeply troubled he could open fire on young children.

The debate regarding whether we should have stricter gun control laws has already come back to the forefront, despite people’s attempts to silence it. I hope that this time we will engage in the debate, at least long enough to try and prevent something like this from happening again.

Yes, people will be violent no matter how much you try to restrict their access to weapons. Yes, the 2nd Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects the right to have and bear arms. But the bottom line is you can kill a lot more people a lot more quickly and with a lot less effort using an automatic or semi-automatic gun than with your bare hands, a knife, or even a gun that only shoots one bullet at a time. We need to make auto/semi-auto weapons and high-capacity clips inaccessible to civilians.

Beyond that, I’m inclined to agree with people who believe we should regulate guns at least as much as we regulate cars. Still make them accessible, but require some proof that owners will use them responsibly. (I know the shooter on Friday stole the weapon he used, but most mass shooters obtain their weapons legally.)

I’ve heard some other arguments that I believe are worth considering in discussions of how to prevent this kind of thing from happening again. One is that violence is glamorized in the media; this encourages or at least condones use of violence in real life. Another is that there is a significant connection between mental health problems and mass shootings, including the one that occurred on Friday.

As a person with serious mental illness, I’ve been struggling with a lot of very intense emotions – especially anger. As recently as December 3rd, I felt so overwhelmingly angry I wanted to feel the full force of my body being as destructive as possible, and I admitted that my desire to do so in a room full of breakable objects was a compromise with my respect for human life. Thank goodness I was with someone who could listen to me talk about these feelings and help me work through them! If that hadn’t been the case …

Well, I don’t have access to semi-automatic weapons. But I was driving a car.

This was a week after I’d made an appointment to see Psychiatrist B. In order to make this appointment, I kept having to call what I imagine must have been a bureaucratic call center and was told several times I’d be called back. They called back when I was in class or otherwise unavailable. When a human finally called and I was able to answer, she said that the subject I’m studying in school “isn’t depressing” – when, actually, it involves learning about some of the most painful experiences a person can have – and asked me extremely awkward questions, such as “what makes you cry?” Never ask a person with depression what makes zir cry. Answering that question requires one to think about things that make one cry, and that’s the last thing a person with depression needs. Ze probably does it way too often already!

After that conversation, I felt like committing suicide. A week later, I was arguably angry enough to commit homicide. Nine days later, I shut out the whole world – fortunately including my therapist, who expressed enough concern in her voice mail messages (which I chose to listen to, by the way) to break through my withdrawal and get me to reconnect with her. Fortunately, in my case reducing the anger was as simple as not taking a prescribed medication anymore. What if I’d needed something more complicated?

Finally, 15 days later, I met with Psychiatrist B. But before I could see him I had to hand someone my health insurance card, read several pages of literature, and sign many forms. I worried that the information I put on the form might cause the mental healthcare provider to deny me the help I so desperately needed. I had to disclose a lot of personal information: where I live, who I live with, my source of income, substance use history, criminal history, my religion, my age, my weight, my sex (there was no place to indicate gender identity), my sexual orientation, and so on.

Only after I’d filled out all the forms, and paid my copay, and signed my soul away, did I get to meet with Psychiatrist B. It was almost an hour after I had arrived. The appointment went well, but what if it hadn’t? The medication he prescribed probably won’t even take effect for another month, at least. I’m a resourceful person with health insurance who cares a lot about other people and knows how painful it is to lose a loved one too well to willingly inflict that upon another human being. And I have a good social support network, including an excellent therapist.

What about the people who don’t?

Links:

Twelve Facts about Guns and Mass Shootings in the U.S.

Why are mass shootings becoming more frequent?

Mass Shootings: Maybe What We Need is a Better Mental Health Policy