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A Long Line of Breaking Points: Guns and Mental Health in America

People, including children, suffer and die in unspeakable ways every hour of the day all over the world. That doesn’t make the Newtown, Connecticut tragedy any smaller. Nor does the fact that it happened in this country make it any larger or more significant in some way. Any event in which innocent lives, especially the lives of children, are lost forever because of some monstrous, almost unimaginable sickness, is something that should be mourned and recognized. You don’t have to memorize the names of every human being who dies in a tragic way, but we sometimes forget the faces and names a little too quickly.

My reaction to the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School was, I’d like to imagine, the same reaction many of you had. I stopped what I was doing, and I couldn’t quite get my focus back for much of the day. Like any huge news story, social media sites like Facebook transformed within moments of the story breaking. Increasingly, Facebook, Twitter and similar avenues are going to be the first outlets that connect us to major stories like this, and that’s both a good and a bad thing.

It bothered me a little to see so many people on my Facebook barely mention the tragedy on a human level. What I saw instead, over and over again, were declarations of one political opinion or another. Some launched right into the cry for varying degrees of gun control. Others went right into pro-gun arguments, ranging from how this whole thing could have been prevented if the teachers or principal had been armed (I’m inclined to think that more people with guns is not the solution, but that’s just me), to the opinion that this should not reflect on the average gun owner, to the mildly sickening fear–expressed by only a few–that their guns were now in danger of being taken away from them. Conversations as to what brought about this horrible day, and what we can do to prevent or at least minimize the potential for future sorrows like Sandy Hook, need to happen. I have no argument with that, but it troubled me that politics was the first responsethat many people had when the story came down the wire.

It’s no longer a question of whether or not something needs to give. Something has given.

I’m generally pessimistic about our capacity to initiate real, definitive change. I want to imagine that amidst all the arguing, all the politics, all the stupid memes advocating or decrying gun control and mental health, something good and permanent will come out of this. I don’t want to be just kidding myself. You have no idea how much I don’t want that. But, honestly, I’ve never had a strong opinion about guns. If I had to lean one way or the other, I would lean towards the opinion that it’s perhaps not a good thing that we are a culture obsessed with guns with a fairly easy of indulging that obsession whenever we want to. I don’t own a gun, and I have no desire to own one. If other people want to own guns, that’s fine. I don’t understand the need to own an assault rifle, but if they’re legal, if someone wants one, and if they’ve gone through the proper channels, then that’s fine, too. It’s just not really my thing. Whether or not you feel the same way about guns that I do isn’t some kind of litmus test.

What I don’t like is fanaticism–and that holds whether or not I understand what a person chooses to do with their time, or whether or not we see eye to eye on certain fundamentals. Some of the anti-gun advocates I’ve encountered are just as annoying, self-righteous and maddeningly detrimental to their goals as gun supporters can be.

However unfair gun owners might think it is, I don’t think it’s reasonable of those who resist even the slightest change to something that is giving power to the kind of people who are capable of wiping out a large group of small children. To resist even that slightest change is to continue to agree to the compromise that, yes, you can have the guns you want, and they may do some measure of good in certain regards, but once in a while, a bunch of people are going to have to die because of it.

I think the idea of arguing that it’s just “collateral damage” (and, yeah, I have actually heard that argument more than once) is morally and socially unacceptable. I don’t care who you are–if you sincerely believe this, then you shouldn’t be allowed to take part in the discussion. You’re one of the biggest parts of the problem. If you believe that this is the greatest country in the world, and you allow things like Newtown to occur, with your only solution being “guns and training for teachers”, then the credibility of your belief is going to be severely compromised.

At the very least, resisting change is consenting to play a part, however big or small you think it is, in something terrible that doesn’t have to be as bad as it is. Gun violence isn’t going to magically disappear, criminals are not going to band together for a re-enactment of that one famous Coca-Cola ad from the 70’s, but I find it shocking that so many people are so stubborn to do anything that could potentially improve the situation, even a little. Some gun owners demand concession from everyone else, but they aren’t willing to give it, or they feel that they’ve given enough. It’s getting to where a person can’t even ask a reasonable question, like whether or not we really need assault rifles.

But actually, I don’t think gun control is the most important aspect of asking what we can do to change the DNA of country that can actually stem the tide of allowing these killings to continue with such intense, frightening frequency. The amount of money we spend in this country on mental health care services is roughly 113 billion dollars. That puts us in the same territory of most of the developed countries of the world. The majority of that 113 billion dollars goes towards prescription drugs (how many people do you know take something for anxiety or depression?) and outpatient treatment. What I don’t understand is how we can be in the same area as most of the developed nations in terms of what we spend on mental health care, and yet also be a country in which access to mental health care is worse than access to any other type of health care. To me, that is much more upsetting than the gun issue.

Statistically, 45% of the people who do not seek treatment listed as their main reason the costs involved in seeking treatment. Of those who did seek treatment, a quarter of them absorbed the bulk of the costs. Here’s what I know for sure. I know that when I was briefly put into a mental health care facility (four days and three nights) at sixteen, I got to go to the “nice” one. That’s because my stepfather had pretty good health insurance. I also know that the reason for my discharge wasn’t because I was deemed to be better. It was because the insurance only covered four days and three nights. I know this because they told me.

And I’m one of the lucky ones. I don’t think any of the stranger people I’ve encountered during the few times I’ve traveled around the country, many of whom had either been homeless for years, or who didn’t know where they might be living from one week to the next, are going to shoot up a school. I do think that a great many of them are in overwhelming need of mental health care. I could certainly be wrong. I’m not a mental health care professional. I am only someone who has met people who seem to be in need of help.

And you know what? The vast majority of them are not going to get it. When it comes to mental health care, we can’t even take care of lower-income middle class families. Even those with good health insurance are asked to sacrifice, to choose between getting the help they need, and making their next rent or mortgage payment. The impoverished don’t stand a chance.

At best, we ignore people who need help. At worst, we bully and tease them.

Do you know how we treat most mental health issues in this country? Pills. Want some pills? We got ‘em. We got a lot of ‘em. We’ve probably got enough to build a few dozen bridges to the moon and back. We’ve also got this really neat, healthy mindset that mental illness is just something that can be shrugged off. Quit whining, suck it up, stop being gay, stop being transgendered, stop having thoughts of suicide so intense that you suddenly have asthmatic symptoms. Eat your dinner, go to work, and stop being so damn sad all the time. At best, we ignore people who need help. At worst, we bully and tease them.

It’s no longer a question of whether or not something needs to give. Something has given. We’re losing extraordinary ground in the war on mental illness. And we’re losing it every single day. Every time someone hurts themselves, others, or both, the ground beneath us becomes smaller.

There is something to be said for taking initiative in your life, but the prevailing attitude in this country when it comes to depression, anxiety, and any other diagnosable form of mental illness is that it’s your fault, and you’re the only one who can do anything about it. Don’t seek treatment, people say. Don’t get help. You just need to cheer up. And the body count continues to rise.

We will never know for sure if a stronger mental health care system could have prevented Newtown. I do think that we barely have a system in place to help those who are trying to help those in crisis. We can’t claim to have done everything we could have done to prevent it, we can only speculate and wish for better conditions, and if we limit ourselves to wishing and speculating on possibility, this will happen again.

When it comes to mental health, the drug and insurance companies hold sway. It is true that people pay more out of pocket for physical health care than mental health care, and it’s also accurate that federal legislation, such as The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Act of 2008, is at least making an effort to give Americans better access to mental health care. Unfortunately, the insurance companies continue to be given far too much power over a person’s quality of care, and the duration of which they can expect that care. This isn’t just about the people who may potentially be a threat to themselves and others. This is about the millions of people who are not getting the help they need, no matter what the problem might be. And the insurance companies remain one of the biggest obstacles in the road to recovery and management. Doesn’t that strike you as just kind of, slightly, marginally, vaguely completely fucked up?

I get why people focus on the guns. It’s a huge issue, one filled with lobbyists, powerful, ruthless politicians, and an aspect of our country’s cultural identity that clearly means a lot to a great many people. Compared to the sickness that has eaten a good portion of our mental health care system though, the issue of guns is a relatively minor one. Something needs to be done, I just wish the number of people who felt the way they do about changing gun legislation felt the same way about the slow, steady damage the state of our mental health care is continuing to inflict on us.

Looking carefully at the state of mental health care in America means looking carefully at the overall state of how we reach out to people, from the drug companies, to the insurance companies, to the government, and finally to ourselves. It means paying close attention to how we view and treat those who need assistance the most. And no one really wants to think about how deeply flawed we are at being able to take care of our own.

A number of liberal, conservative and independent (as far as I could tell) sources were used to write this article, but the following links were particularly helpful with giving me some of the information and statistics I needed on the subject of mental health care in America.


Seven Facts About America’s Mental Health SystemWashington Post

I Am Adam Lanza’s Psychiatrist: A Response to “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother” From a Doctor in the Mental Health Trenchesxojane