Jared Loughner, the man who shot Gabrielle Giffords a year ago, has been under treatment for mental illness and is now considered fit to stand trial. News stories about him and about James Holmes who shot up the Denver movie theater, and others who have massacred innocent people in public places tend to ask the same question: should people with mental illness have access to guns? This question misses the point. The real problem is that Americans with mental disorders need much better access to affordable, decent mental health care. Of course crazy people shouldn't be allowed to have guns at will, but neither should anyone else. Stiffer gun control is sorely needed in the U.S, but we also need to lift the stigma on mental illness and provide quality mental health services for everyone who needs them.
Every time someone shoots up a schoolyard, mosque or other place it raises questions about gun control and how scary mental illness is. But the issue people miss every time is how UNscary people with mental illness are when we're getting the right treatment. Look at the photo that accompanies this article. This is the face of mental illness that the media perpetuates. Now look at any photo of myself that I've posted on this blog. That's the face of mental illness, too, but the news sellers don't tend show the stable, healthy images.
A woman was quoted in a news story as saying that she's tired of the shootings and just wants them to stop. I want to tell her I'm tired of my mental illness and want it to stop, but what both our unlikely wishes require is that we focus on specialized treatment and management of symptoms. If Loughton had gotten the medical treatment he needed, he wouldn't have needed gun control laws to stop his actions. Yes, let's get all these @%&-damn guns off the street and make it a lot harder for anyone to get a hold of them, but let's also treat the other half of this problem. The other half of the violence equation is the mental state that makes someone want to open fire on unarmed people. That happens when people with mental illness aren't getting the care and treatment we need.
Discussions of mass shootings keep circling around the same questions of gun control and how to keep weapons out of the hands of the mentally ill. How about treating the mentally ill? How about accepting mental illness as a fact of life that no one should be ashamed of? How about creating a culture in which people like me feel comfortable asking for help long before we start considering death and violence? When will outrage over people dying in senseless violent acts like Loughton's motivate Americans to provide mental health treatment for everyone who needs it? When will we finally make that connection?
The next time you find yourself on the edge of such a discussion, please raise these questions because I haven't heard anyone asking them yet.