Like many of us, I've spent the last four days mourning the tragedy of Sandy Hook. My thoughts and prayers go out to the family, friends and emergency personnel who faced this unspeakable act of violence.

Going forward, my biggest concern about the tragedy is that it provides an easy out for the absolute negligence for mental health services in our country. I've heard the politically correct version of this statement: Let’s ban the crazy people from buying guns. That’s easy, because the mentally ill person is always somebody else, right? Not my child, not me, not anyone who I’d call my friend.

Perhaps the shooter’s mother felt that way. If she believed her son were mentally ill, why would she take her son to target practice? In today’s world, mental illness plays like social kryptonite in a society where everyone pretends to be superhuman. The reality is, we’re not.

If someone guns down complete strangers, I hope we can all agree that mental illness is the culprit. Looking back over the mass killings in the past 20 years, I see two blatant problems. Number one: people show signs of mental illness but do not get treatment out of ignorance, refusal or lack of access. Number two: people in treatment openly discuss their rage prior to the act, but our laws fail to restrain them before the tragedy occurs. More than half of these massive acts of violence were reported as acts of revenge. Divorces, lost jobs, social rejection, bad grades or thwarted love acted as a trigger for a rampage for people who often weren’t treated for mental illness, but clearly should have been. 

I’m concerned that we’ll pass a law that prevents anyone on medication, in psychotherapy or getting any form of psychiatric care from owning a gun. If we do, we increase the kryptonite potential for mental illness with little improvement in preventing mass killings. We’ll then have people who need treatment who don’t get it because they want to have a gun. That type of legislation leaves us with the worst possible outcome: an armed, untreated mentally ill person.

Laws exist today that prove my point. Pilots who take any antidepressants outside a narrow band of approved medications are denied pilot’s licenses. Physicians who admit taking antidepressants must undergo tremendous scrutiny when applying for rights at hospitals. So what do pilots and physicians do? They either lie about their medication or fail to get the help they need. I can’t tell you the number of times a psychologist has confided in me “I attempted suicide too, but don’t tell anyone. It will ruin my reputation.” Within the field of mental health and beyond, everyone fears the kryptonite of mental illness.

Do I think restriction of guns for the mentally ill is a good idea? Yes. Do I think there are gun owners who need psychological help who will forgo assistance if they are banned by law from possessing a weapon? Yes. If we want to make gun laws effective, we need to apply them to the general population and make them retroactive. Even so, I am not sure this will make a large impact. There are already too many guns in circulation.

Trying to protect ourselves against a mass murderer is a little like not going outside when it is cloudy for fear of lightning. We would be far better off dedicating resources and research to understand mental illness. We’d all be better off if we learned to read the weather of mental illness, learn to use a raincoat or umbrella and take shelter in a violent storm.

Obviously the children and adults of Sandy Hook had no inkling of the violence to occur that day. But I wonder if the shooter ever sought counseling or if his family encouraged treatment during the rough period of divorce. My guess is probably not. In our country we don't practice mental health, we treat mental illness, usually in crisis mode. Too few consider proactive counseling for periods of transition.

The focus on gun bans is understandable. Guns are visible, tangible. Mental illness today is invisible, with no blood test or brain scan to definitively prove its existence or course of treatment. But mental illness kills in our country at a rate that nearly matches breast cancer. When will we begin to dedicate adequate resources to understand and manage this deadly killer?

I am not a gun owner. I believe I’m alive today because I do not own a gun. If I did, one of my suicide attempts in 2001 would have been completed along with over 300,000 people who died by suicide that decade. However I also live in Texas, where I know plenty of law abiding, sane people who own guns. They have a culture of hunting that involves a bonding between father and son (and sometimes daughters) that is a uniquely positive experience. Although I’ll never be a hunter (shoot I can’t even catch and release without pitying the fish), I’ve learned to respect the culture of outdoorsmen.

Uniformly, my hunter friends feel safer in their homes with a gun. As much as I badger them with statistics about the danger of a gun in their homes due to suicide, accidents or homicides of passion, they choose to politely disagree. That’s the painful thing about a free country; people have a right to their own opinions. As much as that freedom sometimes drives me nuts, I accept their right to choose.

My hope is in the light of the Sandy Hook tragedy, we will find a common ground that protects without furthering the shame of mental illness. If the government can ban magazines with more than 10 rounds of ammunition for everyone, I’m all for it. But my bigger hope is that everyone will learn the signs of mental illness and realize that no one is exempt. The earlier we detect and treat problems, the more likely all of us will live long and healthy lives.

For more information about Julie K Hersh or speaking engagements, go to the Struck by Living website.

About the Author

Julie Hersh

Julie Hersh is the author of Struck By Living: From Depression to Hope.

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