Have you or anyone in your family been affected by mental illness? Have you been impacted in anyway by gun violence? I have suffered the consequences of both. In July, 1998 Pam was just thirty-four years old when she leaped to her death due to bipolar disorder. Last year my two grandchildren were subjected to the massacre at Marjory Douglas Stoneman High School when a lunatic exploded his assault weapon and murdered seventeen people. Both these tragedies left me reeling with a cascade of grief that continues to haunt me as I write this blog today.
I am not writing this blog from a political position, although I have been an advocate for responsible gun control for more than 40 years. I am not an expert on the causes of this violence. I don’t think anyone is as it involves a multitude of mitigating circumstances, complicated dynamics and causes. I am writing this blog from both my personal and professional experiences. It is also true that the research does not seem to have a clear cut cause/effect to the duality of both mental illness and gun violence in this country or even globally for that matter. We know little, but enough to know that in certain circumstances mental illness plays a role. It is also true that most people with mental illness are NOT violent. They are more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators. People with severe mental illness, particularly schizophrenia and bipolar disorder do have an increased risk of violence compared to the general population, however the absolute risk they pose is not high and the majority of people with severe mental illness are not violent. It has been said that if you wiped out serious mental illness overnight, violence would fall 4 percent. NAMI states that mental illness isn’t a major cause of gun murder or mass shooting. Then we ask ourselves, what is?
According to research on the relationship between mental illness and violence shows that there are certain factors that may increase risks of violence among a small number of individuals with mental illness. These factors include:
- Co-occurring abuse of alcohol or illegal drugs
- Past history of violence
- Youth and male
- Untreated psychosis
In my research and understanding the best way to reduce the risk is through treatment. Unfortunately less than one-third of adults and half of children with a diagnosed mental illness receive mental health serves in a given year. Here in lies the culprit. It has been more than twenty years since Pam lost her life to mental illness and little if anything has been done to provide the kind of help that is needed. It is a sad testimony that our country, the richest in the world, has such a sub-standard health system to one of the most serious health issues in America. Studies both in the US and abroad concluded that only 4 percent of US violence is attributable to mental illness. And yet, when gun violence occurs, everyone is quick to blame the mentally ill.
NAMI, (National Association of Mental Illness) recognizes that acts of violence by people with mental illness are usually the result of lack of needed mental health services. They argue that policies and programs must be available and accessible to provide access to:
- Early identification and intervention
- Integrated treatment and support
- Integrated treatment when there is co-occurring substance
- Family education and support
- Crisis intervention
NAMI goes on to espouse that federal and state gun reporting laws should be based on identified traits that include current scientific knowledge about what may increase risks of violence among persons with mental illness. States should be provided with clear guidance about who should be reported and who should not. The highly offensive and outdated wording currently in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) reporting laws, specifically individuals: adjudicated a being mentally defective,” should be eliminated and we should be establishing strong safeguards to protect the privacy of individuals whose names are included in federal and state gun reporting databases to make sure that the identities of such individual are not shared or used for any other purposes
More studies reveal that social factors like substance abuse, childhood maltreatment, abuse, abandonment and living in an adverse or violent social environment, i.e., being homeless or living in a very high-crime area of an inner city are major contributors. I add to that, angry and disgruntled people, poor impulse control and crimes of passion. Michael Stone, a psychiatrist at Columbia maintains a data base of mass shooters, wrote in a 2015 article that only 52 out of 235 killers in the database, or about 22 percent, were mentally ill., “The mentally ill should not bear the burden of being regarded as a the “chief perpetrator of mass murder. “Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox, compiled shooters who killed four or more people since 1966 concluded that only 14.8 percent had been diagnosed with a psychotic disorder.
Here are a few facts:
- 80% of all gun death in the world take place in the US
- The number of gun control laws passed by the US Congress in the last three years has been 0. However after the massacre at MDS, congress in February, 2018, Congress did not act. But state legislatures did, passing 69 gun control measures this year — more than any other year since the Newton, Connecticut massacre in 2012, and more than three times the number passed in 2017.
- The number of people killed with guns each year excluding suicide is 30,000. Suicide claims more than 40,000 persons each year.
In contrast to these facts, it was found by Grant Duwe, the director for the Minnesota Department of Corrections and author of Mass Murder in the United States; A History, that 59 percent of mass shootings were committed by people who had been diagnosed as mentally ill or showed signs of having a serious mental disorder before the attack.
He goes on the say, “We should not ignore the connection between mental illness and mass shootings that is very real. The issue has become much politicized, like a tribal warfare.”
Unfortunately, we live in a culture that has changed from the last age of innocence to an unsafe world.
We no longer can feel safe even in our own homes. Security systems infiltrate the market. Kids can no longer walk to school. Parents need to be at the bus stations when they return. It’s not safe for children to play in the streets with their neighbors and friends. Concerts and sports events are policed with security along with synagogues, churches and Mosques. Cameras are a part of our patios and porches as well as supermarkets, drug stores and even convenient stores. Crime is pervasive in America. We are not what our forefathers had hoped for us. This is no longer a country for liberty and justice for all.
It is up to us to be mindful, cautious and warriors in our own communities. No longer can we rely on the police alone. We must be vigilant and aware. It’s sad but true that we must develop a healthy paranoia as a result of our unsafe culture. If someone looks suspicious, we have an obligation and a responsibility to act. If something comes down on our Facebook page that raises the hair on the back of our neck, we must act and report it. It is no longer a Leave It to Beaver world. Our children and grandchildren will not know the last age of innocence in their lifetime. They can’t go to the movies on a Saturday like we did when we were kids, or skate in a park on a Friday night. It’s a new world and no longer a safe one.
So in conclusion, I don’t want to make this blog about the evidence and statistics that are out there. You, my readers can easily find the research the same way I did—Google it! My purpose in this blog is to share my own personal experience with both mental illness and gun violence. Nothing I can contribute in this blog can be substantiated by Google or any published research. It is my story.
After publishing my book, WHY DID SHE JUMP? My Daughter’s Battle with Bipolar Disorder in 2014, I had hoped for change in our health system. It is as deeply entrenched as a political polarized issue now as it was then at the time of her death.
I live in every parent’s worst nightmare. So do my children whose children lived through the nightmare at MDS. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think of Pam and her valiant effort to survive. But in the end, it was her illness that was triumphant and executed her. I know it was not her. She would have never chosen suicide.
My grandchildren went to school on that fateful Valentine’s Day on February 14, 2028 like every other day. In their minds they would have never imagined such a tragedy could occur in the safest city in all of Florida. When my grandson witnessed his classmates die to a mass killer, his life changed forever. Thankfully both my grandchildren survived, but the memory of this nightmare will linger on as a reminder that we are not safe.
Just as I grieved my daughter’s demise, they too will shed grief over their loss. Time does not heal in all cases. Yes, time helps healing, but the video that plays in our minds never ceases. Counseling is imperative. We must have a safe place to discharge the pain. We need benign witnesses that can hold our loss and validate our feelings.
At some time we have to choose whether to be a victim, a survivor or a Phoenix, the mythological bird that rises from the ashes to become stronger and more empowered. I made that choice. I took my pain and morphed it into purpose and passion. My mission was to help others who suffered these horrific losses to heal. By helping others, I continued to help myself. This is the choice my grandson made. He too has chosen to be a Phoenix. He advocates for responsible gun control. He brings unity and comfort to those who mourn and continues to fight for what he believes is right. This year he was chosen Youth of the Year by the men’s club of B’Nai Torah Congregation. His leadership and passion are the best healing agents one can choose. His commitment to his classmates, his colleagues in USY have given him strength and inspiration to continue to discover a better way.
No one escapes adversity. It’s part of the human experience. It’s how we handle our sorrow that matters.