Tuesday, March 15, 2011

MENTAL ILLNESS AND GUNS: A PUBLIC HEALTH ISSUE


Since January, when Jared Loughner shot six people to death and wounded thirteen others in Tucson, more two thousand (yes, two thousand!) Americans have lost their lives to firearms.

These scandalous numbers finally motivated President Obama to address gun violence last weekend. Politically cautious as always, he recommended enforcing laws that are already on the books. For example, the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), a database of names prohibited from obtaining guns, is far from fully implemented. Mr. Obama said, "We must do better."

True, if the NICS system had been strictly administered, it would probably have kept Seung Hui Cho from killing thirty-two people on the Virginia Tech campus.

But even perfect NICS operation wouldn't have affected Jared Loughner or the many others who haven't been legally designated as mentally ill. In Arizona, a person must be at least eighteen years old and have a qualifying psychiatric diagnosis and a resulting functional impairment to earn that designation. Though considered weird in his every circle, Loughner was never diagnosed--largely because he never sought treatment--so he was perfectly free to buy guns.

In California and most other states, a court order is required for designation as mentally ill, but the process can't reach that level until a mental health professional certifies one as a danger to self or others, or gravely disabled. A mentally ill man in our town shot three people to death ten years ago. Long a patient in our county's public mental health system, he should have reached the court, but no attempt was made to bring him there. His shoddy and negligent treatment was due in part to gross mismanagement and in part to gross underfunding.

In his talk on gun violence, the President failed to mention mental health treatment, a more effective approach to this conundrum. Instead of improving treatment, we're decimating it. Over the last three years, the states have reduced mental health budgets by $2.1 billion, and more slashing is on the way. In a stroke of perverse genius following the Tucson shootings, Arizona's Governor Jan Brewer announced her intention to cut $35.9 million in mental health services.

Maybe the President feels that embroiling himself in the states' choice of budget cuts will generate political blowback he doesn't need now. But I suspect he avoids the subject because he's aware of something more subtle: the bulk of people who are dangerously mentally ill will simply not come to professional attention. A this point in our history, we have no social or legal mechanism for keeping weapons from the hands of people whose minds are perilously aberrant, but still hold down jobs, attend school, and function more or less within boundaries we call normal. As weirdly as Jared Loughner behaved, he never triggered a serious mental health alarm until the shootings.

Many years ago, I worked in a federal facility. An employee was sent to me for a mental health evaluation because he was frightening his coworkers. A coiled spring of anger, he frightened me, too, especially when he revealed that he kept his car trunk filled with guns. I phoned his brother, a local deputy sheriff, to relate my worries that this man was a time bomb. His brother told me he was equally concerned, but there was nothing he could do, as the man had broken no laws and wasn't crazy enough to generate a court appearance. As far as I know, the man never exploded.

I believe this is no rare situation, and it's as ridiculous to allow it as it is dangerous. Do I have a solution? No, but I do suggest a course of action: we need to conduct a national dialog about the actual issue, which is mental health. Discussing gun violence as though it's solely about guns is a waste of time…and lives.

1 comment:

  1. Well, I do not have a solution either... because... well, people (some anyway) are idiots... and we cannot really legislate intelligence, so even if empirical proof were available to all, laws enacted, and so on.... there would still be people who "slipped through the cracks". However, I do think we should endeavor to do what we CAN. And guns are an easy scapegoat, however when a gun is not available, then a car driven recklessly (on purpose) into a crowd can be just as lethal. Let's not address a symptom, and instead look for the underlying cause.

    I think we could and WOULD see a significant decrease in homicidal behavior if we better addressed Omega 3 consumption, or rather the lack thereof in Western (and probably most other) civilization.

    For further info:
    Increasing homicide rates and linoleic acid consumption among five western countries, 1961–2000

    Joseph R. Hibbeln, Levi R. G. Nieminen and William E. M. Lands

    http://www.springerlink.com/content/u18t15n376r62255/

    The main reason I believe there is significant merit to this view, aside from many, many studies, and a deep understanding of the effect of the lack of omega 3's on the body is personal experience.

    I have MS, and it reached a high around January of 2001, and after I decided that the doctors were not merely clueless about the disease, they were HAPPY to address merely the symptoms without ever looking to a cause. If one addresses the CAUSE of a problem, the symptoms resolve themselves. I did not care to be "more comfortable" I wanted to be either "cured" or have actual causes of my illness addressed, I knew that would resolve the symptoms by-in-large.

    As I lay in my sick bed over the next few years... I noticed when _I_ felt pretty "ok" I did not hear about school shootings or rampant homicidal rampages... but when I was REALLY feeling lousy, I DID, a LOT.

    Some of this, of course could be explained by my being in BED and weak and not having energy to do anything beyond watching TV when feeling the worst. But even when I felt better, the TV was usually on, and anything as notable as a shooting or other rampage/mass death episode I noticed. However it did get me to thinking and I looked for incidents of mass homicides, all over the world with any method, I found knives, machetes, guns and even vehicles were used. BUT what I found most interesting was that in 22 out of 29 I found occurred in a 4 month time frame... early to mid spring and mid to late fall. Which is also when my MS was typically the worst.


    Why? Well, my current theory (or is it hypothesis, I always confuse the 2) is that BOTH are in large part caused by a sudden rapid depletion of omega 3 fatty acids in the bloodstream. The spring and fall are both rather notorious for being "allergy season" be it mold (like me), blooms or ragweed that one is most allergic. Allergies activate the immune system, and activation of the immune system depletes the body of omega 3's.

    There was a Harvard study, I do not recall the specifics, just that they were doing a double blind placebo vs Omega 3's in treating bi-polar disorder, and that 4 months in they agreed to STOP the study and give everyone the omega 3's because they were seeing such great improvements in the omega 3 patients they thought it unethical to continue the ones taking placebo, and instead gave ALL of them the omega 3's.

    If someone's mind is disintegrating and they are that hostile, if they have NO access to a firearm, they will find another method to give voice to their rage, cars, planes homemade bombs like the Oklahoma jerk.


    And a nice side benefit to getting Omega 3's into "mainstream" society as a deterant to MANY of our ills, is that most of the auto-immune diseases and at least some incidents of cancer and most illness Doctors cannot adequately explain will improve or disappear... add Vitamin D3 and he % will be even greater.

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