Mental health support, not gun control

Jeremy Kee Seminarian, Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary
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Once the fog of war cleared in the U.S. Navy Yard on September 16th, facts surrounding who Aaron Alexis was and what drove his actions began to emerge. The focus shifted to the fact that Alexis was able to gain security clearance to a military installation despite his distinct history of mental disturbance. It was called a failure in security protocol. The real failure, however, lies in the fact that someone in such desperate need of help slipped through the cracks with such ease.

Though all the facts have yet to emerge, it appears Miriam Carey, the woman who was shot dead by police after leading them on a chase from the White House to the Capitol yesterday, may have as well.

Commentators were quick to attribute Alexis’ rampage to lax gun regulations, until it was discovered that only a single gun, a shotgun acquired legally, was intended to be used. No political or religious motivation was found. Simply put, this was a case of mental illness being allowed to fester. Blame cannot be assigned to his parents, or to the 2nd Amendment – two popular scapegoats in situations such as these. Rather, blame must be portioned out to the true guilty parties: Aaron Alexis, and the mental health system that let him down.

Mental health is a great unspoken tragedy in modern America. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 26.2 percent of adult Americans live with some form of mental illness ranging from depression to PTSD and Schizophrenia. With such prevalence, this great national affliction is rarely spoken of. Why is this?

One issue is the stigma surrounding it. The stigma is that those who suffer from mental illness are a danger in some way to those around them. This certainly can be the case, it is only rarely true. Thus, a broad range of estimates claim that no more than 40 percent of those with diagnosed mental illness seek treatment.

There are also issues with screening and access to care. As far as screenings go, they are virtually nonexistent. It is a Catch-22 scenario: not being compulsory, they are most often either requested by the patient, or else required after a crime has been committed. To the former, they are obviously not too far gone to recognize their need for help. For those who receive a screening only after a crime or some other cause warrants it, some sort of damage has already been done.

Mental health funding was cut after the Reagan years, leaving the myriad options for care unknown. Even for those who are aware of their options, they are, like most other healthcare options, cost prohibitive. Taken together, it is clear that there is a great tragedy unfolding. Clearly, mental health is not a priority in this country.

What’s more, between August 1982 and September 2013, there were 66 mass shootings in the U.S. resulting in 549 deaths and an additional 509 injuries. Among these 66 shootings, 41 of the perpetrators, a full 62 percent, had a history of mental health issues, with an additional 8 assumed to have had mental health issues based on character witnesses.

Violence of this kind is not random or chaotic. It is cold, calculated action with a cause. The issue of poor mental health does not tie each shooting to the others, though it plays a notable role in a majority of the cases. The media and politicians can blame the use of firearms and castigate the 2nd Amendment as much as they want, but this ignores the more pressing issue, which is that a significant minority of our neighbors are suffering.

How many of the recent tragedies, the narratives with which we are far too familiar, could have been averted with proper recognition and treatment? As a nation, until we can move past the stigma associated with mental health, just as we move past so many other stigmas of the past, it is hard to be hopeful that these mass shootings will go away. This problem cannot be solved through any legislative effort.

Jeremy Kee is a research associate at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, but the views expressed in this piece are his own.

Jeremy Kee