In the weeks since the school shooting in Florida at Stoneman Douglas, we are once again talking about mental health and the treatment of people with mental illness. President Trump has called for more mental institutions, as one of his solutions to the problem of mass shootings. And last week, Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, said that communities need to have the option of involuntarily committing mentally ill people to reduce crime.
As someone with paranoid schizophrenia, who could be impacted by sweeping law and policy changes, what do I think about these two powerful men and their statements? I think they are both right in their proposals, but the information or assertions that lead to these proposals are inaccurate, based on faulty reasoning, reactionary, and wrong.
President Trump is correct that we need more long-term psychiatric beds in every state in the union. According to The Treatment Advocacy Center in 1955, there were 558,239 psychiatric beds in the United States, and as of 2016, there were 37,679. What does this mean? It means people who are experiencing a mental health crisis may not find a bed, or they may go on a waiting list that has them waiting as long as a month or more for the type of treatment they need.
Attorney General Jeff Session is correct that we need a better system to get people into hospitals. Under the current system, a person must be a danger to themselves or others to be involuntarily committed. As someone who has been psychotic, and in need of treatment that I did not trust (due to paranoia), and I lacked insight into my condition based on a symptom called anosognosia. An involuntary commitment would have helped me get the treatment I needed much faster. When someone is psychotic the length of time that they are psychotic matters regarding recovery, treatment, and the likelihood of future episodes. In other words, the sooner someone gets treatment, the better.
So, all is well in Washington DC regarding attitudes towards mental health? Right? Wrong. The fact that a mass shooting led to these proposals is troubling at the least and harmful at worst. The statistics do not back up either one of these responses to gun violence. According to the American Mental Health Counselors Association, only 3 to 5 percent of all violence (including firearm violence) is tied to severe mental illness. In the same article, on their website, AMHCA reports that people with severe mental illness are twelve times more likely to be the victims of violence (including firearm violence) than the general population.
It is easy to blame the mentally ill it is a simple and clean and for most people, perfectly sensible cause of violence. But it isn’t truthful, and the number of people those myths hurt is on the rise every year. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) one if five American adults will experience a mental illness, and ten million adults in America live with a serious mental illness. So, are these repeated stereotypes about mental illness and violence hurting someone? Yes, they are hurting a large portion of the adult population in America. They are keeping people from treatment (don’t want to admit I have a mental illness) and keeping people from jobs (people don’t want to hire someone who they believe (although inaccurately) is prone to violence).
We need solutions to mass shootings in America. We also need solutions to mental health in America, but the two things are a separate conversation and tying them together destroys life and productivity; it costs our society and individuals way too much. It’s time to get serious and untie the myths so we can make room for change.