Pete Earley, an author in Virginia, writes frequently about mental health reform. He can be reached at www.peteearley.com.
Pundits have scrutinized the presidential debates in microscopic detail, even judging the candidates’ body language, yet no one has chastised President Obama for insulting one in every seven Americans. Not even the president-haters at Fox News noticed.
What did the president say last week that was so offensive?
A moment later, speaking about a comprehensive gun strategy, he added:
“Part of it is seeing if we can get automatic weapons that kill folks in amazing numbers out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill.”
Substitute any other group except “the mentally ill” in the president’s sentences.
We have to . . . make sure that we’re keeping guns out of the hands of criminals, those who are Hispanic. . . . those who are black. . . . those who are gay. You can even substitute “Republicans.”
The president’s reference smeared a lot of innocent Americans. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administrationreported this January that 45.9 million American adults experience a mental illness during any given year. Does Obama believe these 45.9 million Americans pose an immediate threat to society?
Before you dismiss my complaint as nit-picking political correctness run amok, consider this: My adult son is one of those Americans. He has a severe mental disorder. I have seen how he has been stigmatized because of his diagnosis. He has been barred from certain jobs and turned away from employment opportunities for which he was well-qualified. Friends have distanced themselves. People whisper behind his back. Housing is tougher for him to find. Health insurers are wary. All because he developed a mood disorder during his twenties that psychiatrists claim is a biologically and genetically based illness that clearly is not his fault.
Obama’s answer was referring to the shootings in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater in July. Murders by Jared Lee Loughner in Tucson in 2011 and Seung Hui Cho on the Virginia Tech campus in 2007 have fueled the stereotype that “the mentally ill” are untrustworthy and dangerous. But those shooters are no more representative of the mentally ill than the 9/11 terrorists are representative of Muslims. We shouldn’t condemn everyone because of the violent acts of a few.
The majority of Americans diagnosed with mental disorders are not dangerous. They are more likely to be victims than to victimize. Some do become dangerous when their disorders go untreated and their delusions take control. Instead of typecasting all of them, however, Obama ought to be pushing harder for initiatives that can better protect the public from the sickest of the sick by helping people recover.
Family, friends and college professors noticed odd behavior and were alarmed before the Tucson and Virginia Tech shootings. But misguided mental health laws required a person to act dangerously before anyone could intervene and faulty mental health services failed to stop those killings. I suspect we will find the same occurred before the Aurora tragedy.
We need to support effective mental health services. The Lamp Community in Los Angeles’ skid row reduces homelessness by renting subsidized apartments to tenants even if they are not yet clean, sober or mentally stable. It helps people recover. Fountain House in Manhattan finds employment through job sharing for individuals whose mental disorders make it impossible for them to work traditional 40-hour-per-week jobs. It helps people recover. Safe housing, employment, access to meaningful medical care are proven recovery tools.
By redirecting funds from jails, prisons and crisis-driven services, such as traditional homeless shelters and hospital emergency rooms, into supportive, permanent housing and evidence-based treatment, we can invest upfront in initiatives that will result in savings over the long run. That is far more rational and humane than our current crisis-driven approach, which sends people to costly hospital emergency rooms, overnight shelters and jails, causing an unending growth in Medicaid, emergency budgets and corrections.
Sadly, the presidential debates fell victim to the same public discourse that always arises after tragedies such as those in Aurora, Tucson and at Virginia Tech. The focus becomes gun control — keeping firearms out of the hands of “the mentally ill.” The focus should be on fixing our failed mental health-care system.