Untreated mental illness raises the risk factors for violence

Published in The News Tribune, December 19, 2012

The news from Newtown, Connecticut has many of us revisiting recent horrors where unstable citizens in our own communities committed the unspeakable crime of killing off-duty police officers, a sleeping father, a park ranger, and far too many others.  Yet even these senseless crimes pale in comparison with the terrifying violence visited last week on children at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof passionately, predictably — and correctly – has called for stricter control and regulation of our nation’s guns.  His common sense argument is that we must treat guns in the same way that we approach cars, airplanes, elevators, gas pipelines, or anything else that can kill us:  We must control and regulate them.

Kristof is right.  Car and safety regulations are a good part of the explanation for why the odds of being killed while driving has dropped every year since World War II, a time when we were ten times more likely than today to die while driving.  Amazingly, as many Americans die now from gunshot wounds as they do from car accidents.

Kristof reports one particularly arresting fact:  5 to 14 year-olds in our country are 13 times more likely to be murdered with a gun than are those in other industrialized countries.  This statistic, which now conjures up that Sandy Hook classroom with Emily Parker and 19 of her classmates, should by itself underscore the difference that gun policy can make in saving lives.  More importantly, it makes our inability to enact stronger policies inexcusable.

There are many things we could do to make our guns, just like our cars, safer.  To start, we should enforce the federal law requiring that dangerous people be reported to the federal office that overseas background checks.  Currently, state and federal agencies often ignore this law without penalty.  All gun transactions should entail a background check.  And the sale of rapid-fire guns should be restricted and more tightly regulated.

While stronger gun policy is important, it’s not the only change needed to better protect ourselves from firearms.  We must also address our inadequate mental health policies.

We’ve all read those stories in our own community where individuals clearly in need of help found it much too difficult to get it.  Jonathan Meline is a schizophrenic; for years he threatened his parents.  Recently left with little recourse other than to abandon their son to the streets, his family took him in.  In October Jonathan’s father paid for that decision with his life.

Laura Sorensen is a woman with severe mental illnesses.  Last August she walked into a Key Peninsula store and shot three people.  As heartbreakingly detailed in the News Tribune, her family had exhausted every avenue available to them to help their daughter.  This tale is one shared by too many parents of children with severe mental illnesses.

Let me be clear that mental illnesses by themselves do not cause violence. But untreated, they compound other risk factors that foster violent behavior.  About a dozen times each year, Washingtonians with untreated severe mental illness get entangled in incidents that end in violent deaths.

Budget cuts are one explanation for the poor state of mental health services.  Over the last couple of years state governments have cut over $4 billion from public health programs that provide psychiatric beds, treatment services, and community health programs.  Another reason is that when it comes to mental illnesses, insurance coverage is much too meager.  And finally, the criteria for involuntary treatment is simply too restrictive.

Inadequate and expensive mental health services mean that those with mental illnesses more often than not wind up being cared for not by the medical profession, as they should be, but by our legal system.  Or, they become the quiet, tragic burden of parents like Rob Meline, Jennifer Sorensen, and probably Nancy Lanza.

We must make sure that we’ve done what we can to ensure that when fired, guns are used responsibly.  And we must do a better job assuring that people with mental illnesses, and their families, receive the help they need.

Such common sense changes can’t erase the tragedies now behind us.  Indeed, they may not have altered what occurred last week in Newtown.  But they can help ensure that future mass killings are as rare as they should be.