Salzer: Misguided Focus On Mental Illness

Misguided Focus On Mental Illness

By Mark Salzer  Philadelphia Inquirer  January 2, 2013

A typical reaction after an incomprehensible shooting is to call for restrictions on gun ownership among people with mental illnesses, as well as changes in the mental-health system.

But consider the realities: Even if the Newtown gunman did have a mental-health issue, he would represent only 1 out of 20 million with such issues. Mental-health professionals are unable to adequately predict violence, especially mass violence, but murder in this country is overwhelmingly perpetrated by those who do not have a mental illness.

People with mental-health issues are much more likely to be the victims rather than the perpetrators of crime. They already face debilitating, dispiriting, and disabling prejudice and discrimination from their government and fellow citizens. More prejudice and discrimination keep people away from obtaining needed services, and coerced treatment drives a wedge between mental-health professionals and patients.

A meaningful action in response to Newtown would be for politicians to promote civility, respect for others, and compromise. A meaningful action would be to have gun laws that actually decrease the ability to kill many people in a short period of time. A meaningful action would be to quintuple efforts to eliminate the prejudice and discrimination that harm so many individuals and their loved ones who are affected by mental illnesses. A meaningful action would be to invest in mental-health services that promote hope, recovery, and community inclusion. A meaningful action would be to embrace, rather than demonize, the millions of people who are affected by mental-health issues.

It is time for meaningful action in response to the horrible gun killings in our country. But let's make sure that our actions are fully informed by facts and rationality, and do not perpetuate worn prejudices and political expediency. Let's make sure that our desire to regain a sense of control and normalcy in response to such horrible acts does not lead to bad policy and further harm an already estranged group of citizens.

Mark Salzer is a psychologist and the chair of rehabilitation sciences at Temple University.