It seems like the gun control parts of any approach to eradicating gun violence would be the most difficult to enact and enforce. However I think we will find the mental health concerns will be much more difficult to address. Individual freedom is something we set great store by in our society. We have always found the idea of any kind of mind control or behavior modification anathema. We are constantly on guard for “Big Brother”. Obviously George Orwell’s book 1984really touches a nerve in us. We may bully people who are “different”, but we will also go to great lengths to defend their right to be an individual. We like to think that we embrace a wide range of behavior as acceptable, even though we don’t.
When it comes to using psychotropic drugs to lull people into mental states that approach “normal” because these drugs deaden unacceptable mental swings or thoughts, we are torn. We like to feel safe from the psychopathic activities of people who experience strange mental aberrations and who sometimes act on them. However, there is a part of us that feels these drugs deaden the human spirit and we understand why people may go off their meds. There is an aspect of mind control involved that makes us nervous. It is difficult to decide sometimes whether someone’s antisocial behavior makes them unique and interesting, although possibly rebellious, or whether such behavior has crossed a line and signals a person who is a danger to themselves or others. We would find a government that issued “happy pills” unacceptable and for good reasons.
When we emptied out our mental institutions we did so for very good reasons. There were so many abuses against mentally ill patients. Patients were subjected to shock therapies, ice baths; they were sometimes beaten or sexually abused; sometimes they were kept so medicated that it would have been impossible for them to participate in any kind of therapy and impossible to see if their behavior was improving. Sometimes their meds killed them. New drugs made it possible to treat people as out-patients. At first drugs were paired with psychotherapy, until it was found that drugs alone could be effective. Now we have seen that these drugs are only effective if people actually take them and we have found few programs that work to ensure that people will consistently take their pills. So we are caught between a rock and hard place. We don’t think institutions work for anything other than to incarcerate the “maddest” among us and we know that just turning everyone out with meds is not making things exactly hunky-dory either. Our mental health professionals work tirelessly, I am sure, to help parents find treatment for their children and to supervise adults who slip through the net with the very large holes in it. However sad they are, homeless people with mental illnesses do not seem to be violent.
The groups we are having most difficulty with are people (and children) who are not usually classified as mentally ill. Adolescents are usually still with their parents. They may have acquired a label in school; ADHD, ADD, autistic. These labels catalog their behavior. If these children happen to be also mentally ill it may be difficult to see given their other issues. Many mental illnesses do not appear until adolescence. By this time parents have learned to protect their children and fight the system on their behalf. Their child’s behavior teaches the parent to leave them to their own devices. Some adult shooters have held jobs and/or have married. Perhaps their extreme behavior was under control until some life event set them off. These are people who target someone like an employee where they worked or their wife, and who often don’t mind some collateral damage. Yes these people may all lack social skills but they are very hard to identify before they “go off”. Our whole love of freedom, and our respect for the individual, which we preach better than practice, works against intervening until these individuals are dangerous.
Enlisting the help of parents will be essential in helping us look for young people who are losing touch with reality and who require professional assistance. I am not even sure that the state of the art treatments in the mental health field have really effective strategies for helping adolescents develop successful social skills, especially children whose mental state may be confounded by other issues like autism. Economic issues probably enter into this also. Getting parents who have decided to opt out of the system to opt back in will take a set of policies with real finesse. We don’t do finesse very well.
This is why we need to look to gun control measures for a while unless we are willing to return to treatments for the mentally ill that are a lot more coercive than what we have in place right now or unless we can create approaches that are much more compelling than what we have now. Overhauling our mental health system is not going to prove an easy task and it may turn out that we still have much to learn about helping people attain and preserve their mental health. Gun laws can be passed right away. We may not be able to enforce gun laws 100% of the time, but we may be able to enforce these laws often enough. Once again, these laws do not have to stay on the books forever. If we collect data and find that they really are not effective these laws can be overturned. We can try a mental health approach along with gun control and we should, but it may not be effective right away.