Op Eds: Let's Stop Blaming, Failing People with Mental Illnesses

Let's Stop Blaming The Mentally Ill

By Lollie Bulter  Arizona Daily Star  January 15, 2013

There is a bloody war being waged in America; gun advocates versus those who would ban guns. This "civil" war may go on for a long time.

Meanwhile, those suffering from mental illnesses unfairly shoulder the blame for atrocities committed against the innocent.

This is an unreasonable situation. Armed persons firing into crowds, whether at schools or shopping malls, defies reason and causes all of us to feel vulnerable. It also takes its toll on those with mental illnesses. Words like "crazy" and "deranged" fly across the front pages, and the mentally ill in treatment, saddled with severe funding cuts and ongoing social stigma, take it on the chin.

A 2009 study in the Archives of General Psychiatry states, "If a person has severe mental illness without substance abuse and a history of violence, he or she has the same chance of being violent during the next three years as any other person in the general population."

"It's unproductive to besmirch a whole group of people recovering from (mental) illnesses as if they are all dangerous - when in fact, they're not," says Duke University medical sociologist Jeffery Swanson.

Who kills? Do guns kill or do people kill? The NRA would have us believe that the Newtown murderer could have carried out his massacre of 26 people including 20 children with any weapon, and that a semiautomatic rifle is no more effective in a crowd than a cleaver. They would have us believe that video games have created a cadre of psychotic individuals and that the proliferation of combat rifles has no bearing on these murders.

Our focus of late has been on mass murders, but every day in this country people are killed by gunfire either by others, by their own hand or by accident. When a child finds an unlocked gun and through natural curiosity fires it - accidentally killing himself - the argument that it is people, not guns who kill, falls flat.

In every human drama, someone profits and someone loses. In this regrettable situation, the NRA and its members and manufacturers profit while the public at large and those in and out of mental-health recovery lose.

In the aftermath of the recent tragedy that sent 20 children to their early graves and killed teachers and others at the school who attempted to defend them, the sales pitch of gun advocates that "freedom equals a gun placed in the hands of every American" will probably continue.

Though we cry "never again!" from the rooftops, unless we stop criminalizing everyone with a mental illness and lift the burden of too many guns from our shoulders, America's war with itself will continue and the body count will increase.

Lollie Butler is the director of the program Heart to Heart, through the National Alliance for Mental Illness of Southern Arizona.




Let's Stop Failing Our Children

By James Baldwin, Commentary  Albany Times Union  January 14, 2013


Since the Columbine school massacre in 1999, more than 30 mass shootings have occurred in the United States. In the wake of these tragedies, we communally engage in three ever-so-predictable steps:

We mourn those whose lives were cut short so brutally. As dutiful citizens, we observe the moments of silence decreed by our leaders in remembrance of the latest victims.

We are told to review and update safety plans. These directives are well-intentioned and serve to protect those who issue them and subtly assert that the problem is in our schools, not with our government policies.

With cries for reform on gun control and other needed measures, the next story breaks in the media and we move on with little or no legislative change.

Our response is grossly incomplete and shamefully ineffective in preventing similar tragedies.

The innocent victims of these massacres and their families really do deserve our sympathy and whatever comfort we can offer. But they and we deserve meaningful action.

Having observed our latest "moment of silence," it is time for a "year of outrage" at the federal, state and local governments that have failed to control the proliferation of battlefield guns in our communities; who shortchange necessary mental health programs and who act as though the answer to this mass violence is to fortify our schools. Enough is enough.

It is time that we show greater concern for protecting our children - who are 16 times more likely to be murdered by guns than children in any other of the world's top 25 industrialized countries - than protecting our rights to own "killing machines" that belong on the battlefield.

It also is time that we accept responsibility for failing past victims. I'm ashamed that our government has so gravely and chronically failed to learn from the bloodshed of innocents. But then our society tends to avoid difficult conversations in favor of easy fixes or victories.

This conversation needs to go beyond the availability of assault weapons. It needs to address how to identify and treat mental illnesses that are so pervasive.

According to the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health, half of all cases of mental illness begin to develop before the age of 14, yet only one-third of children with a diagnosable mental disorder receive treatment. It's time for our government to get serious about funding an area where costs, denying that the problem exists and lack of information sometimes get in the way of meaningful change.

Let's face it. The majority of those with mental disorders will never victimize others, but far too many end up neglected themselves - victims of poor policies and perceptions that marginalize them or, worse, sentence them to lives behind bars.

Let's avoid the need for another communal moment of silence by engaging in a year of outrage to draw greater attention to the realities facing schools in dealing with violence and the escalating mental and emotional distress of students.

Public schools are rightfully held accountable for academic achievement. But who is holding state and county departments of health, mental health, and children/family services accountable for their obligation to provide services to mentally ill students?

The lack of mental health services has forced schools to serve students who need residential placements or psychological/psychiatric services far more intense than we can provide or afford.

Who is accountable for this?

Medicaid rules have forced school service providers to spend countless hours documenting services instead of providing them. What's more important?

In spite of our years of pleading for mandate relief, schools are still required to spend money to meet antiquated or unnecessary state mandates because policymakers refuse to alienate the interest groups that support them. In fact, they keep adding more. Could this money be redirected to support services for mentally ill children?

It is time for all of us to express our outrage to elected officials at all levels by demanding an end to the proliferation of semiautomatic weapons - and the reform of a political system that has become very adept at observing moments of silence but woefully inadequate when it comes to resolving complex problems.

James Baldwin is the district superintendent of Questar III BOCES in Castleton.