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OPINIONS

Guns and Mental Health

James Holmes, the infamous gunman who committed the movie theatre massacre in Aurora, Colorado this past July, attended a preliminary hearing yesterday in which police officers and witnesses testified. If he is found fit to stand trial, legal analysts predict that he will plead guilty to the murder charges by reason of insanity, but we will have to wait and see. On the Thursday of Stanford’s finals week, the town of Newtown, Connecticut was forever changed by a shooter that ravaged an elementary school, killing 26 people, most of them 5 and 6 years of age.

While listening to the news, reading the paper and watching the presidential address that followed the Sandy Hook shooting, I could not help but cringe at the word “inexplicable” that was often associated with these tragedies. Obviously most of us could never imagine opening fire on schoolchildren or shooting completely innocent victims in a crowded movie theatre. For those of us who are healthy, functioning members of society, the actions of the gunmen in these two recent high-publicity cases are the absolute antithesis of our engagement with our communities. However, rather than write off the people responsible for these terrible tragedies as lunatics without souls or call their crimes “inexplicable,” I wish we could focus more on the explanations that are available. They are harder to find, and more disturbing.

I am a strong proponent of gun control laws, but as representatives debate new gun control policies, we are only doing half the work if we do not also look at the landscape of mental health care in this country. Without an emphasis on psychiatric care and well-being in our society, we are not adequately addressing the issue at hand.

Along with the faces of the victims whose lives they took, we must also remember the faces of the killers. They are just a few of the many people that slip through the cracks in the institutional system of psychiatric care that typically revolves around the prison system rather than the health care system. In reality, these shooters are simply the highest-profile victims of our current mental health care system, the most dramatic cases out of the thousands of people who do not receive adequate treatment for mental illness. Most people with diagnosable disorders do not go on to shoot dozens of children or moviegoers but rather live unhappy and unproductive lives with little national reverberation.

These massacres suddenly become less “inexplicable” as soon as we consider that these shooters have serious, clinically diagnosable mental disorders that, untreated, make it impossible for them to function normally. Without a legal framework that mandates mental health care (medication, institutionalization, therapy) for these individuals, which would give us some method for dealing with these diagnoses as a society, even the harshest gun-control laws in the country will not prevent these people from acting out in unjust and damaging ways, with or without guns. We may never know the exact diagnoses of the two recent shooters – it depends on what evidence is disclosed at trial – but hopefully the fact that a psychiatric disorder played a key role in the loss of so many lives will inspire us to seek reform and devise a more adequate system for dealing with mental disorders in the U.S.

I hope I’ve made the point that we must consider mental health reform in the same breath as gun control laws, especially as we respond to the recent tragedies stemming from guns in the hands of individuals suffering from mental illness. But what about us? The road to national mental health reform begins with all of us. Do your part to make sure those around you aren’t slipping through the cracks. If you see someone who looks visibly upset, stop and ask if you can help or if they want you to stand with them for a few minutes. If you know a friend going through a hard time, take the time to be with them and support them, even if it just means giving them a hug and telling them that you’re there for them.

I’m not suggesting that anyone you know will be the next mass shooter, but taking responsibility for the collective wellness of those around you is an important step toward safer communities. Never underestimate the power of a simple gesture of care toward a friend or even a complete stranger. If everyone did just that, chances are we’d live in a much safer world.

Let Emily know your ideas about the road to mental health reform at ecohodes@stanford.edu.

About Emily Cohodes

Emily Cohodes is a senior majoring in Psychology. She has been a peer counselor at the Bridge for the past three years and now serves as the course coordinator for the training courses. A lover of all animals, Emily has been a vegetarian since age 3 and is very interested in food production and sustainable food systems. In her free time, she can be found riding horses, cooking meatless delicacies, reminiscing about her time abroad in Italy, and hiking. She is always looking for ways to improve campus mental health culture and would love your feedback.
  • Jonathan

    Best op-ed I’ve read all year.

  • pol_incorrect

    Two big problems with your argument. Point #1 made by Allen Frances the Chief Editor of DSM-IV http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/dsm5-in-distress/201212/2-weeks-post-newtown-gun-control-mental-health-and-grief

    “The mentally ill as a group are only slightly more violent than the
    general population and account for only a small proportion of all
    violence. And we will never be able to predict who will become violent
    and when- this is an inherently insoluble search for the small needle in
    the very large haystack.”

    Continuing with point #1, the recent edition of psychiatry’s most famous work of fiction, DSM-5, puts under psychiatry’s radar absolutely normal people http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/dsm5-in-distress/201212/dsm-5-is-guide-not-bible-ignore-its-ten-worst-changes .

    Point #2. The big elephant in the room is that all the notorious mass shooters were taking psychotropic drugs. The Virginia Tech guy, the Aurora guy, from what we know Adam Lanza. The shooter that did the Stockton massacre during the 80s was taking Prozac and Eli Lilly settled the case out of court to avoid bad publicity. So I think that Big Pharma has a lot to answer for.

    Taking points #1 and #2 into account, it boggles my mind how anybody can seriously think about lowering the safeguards against psychiatric abuse. We want more mass shooters? All we have to do is to force more people on these poisonous medications.

  • Yes, but…

    I think what Emily is attempting to address is our overwhelming stigma towards mental health and those who are dealing with damaging disorders, which affects how healthcare groups view mental health and treatment. When tragedies like these recent shootings occur, mental health tends to be swept under the rug or else used as a way to demonize the shooters. Before any mental health reform can come underway, this stigma must be addressed. Not exactly a piece of cake.

    Regarding your points above, I completely agree that psychiatric drugs are not necessarily the best solution to treating psychiatric disorders, and that pharmaceutical companies exercise a great deal of influence in psychiatry. But psychiatry isn’t just about tossing prescriptions at patients with severe mental health disorders, although I find it unsettling to know that most psychiatrists are oftentimes employed by hospitals and other institutions for that service alone. Psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, etc, these are just as important, if not more important, to consider and utilize than psychiatric drugs. These services, in additional to certain prescribed drugs, are not well addressed in our healthcare system, and often not covered. In fact, from what I understand, psychiatrists during their time in residency hash out their clinical experiences in a far shorter period of time than, say, a PhD student in clinical psychology.

    From my perspective, I believe that with a) reduced stigma against mental health in general and b) reforms in the services that psychiatrists provide and are trained to provide, we can progress towards mental healthcare reforms for which Emily advocates. I would also argue that services provided by non-MD mental health professionals are just as valuable to consider in mental healthcare reforms.

  • pol_incorrect

    My point is that psychiatry is basically a scam. A pseudoscience. It boggles my mind every time I hear people willing to give these inquisitors any more power than what they already have. If the law protects us from these serial abusers is for a reason. These people (the practitioners of psychiatry) waste no time every time that there is a tragedy to ask for ever increasing powers despite the fact that 1) they know all to well that they cannot predict who’s likely to become violent -as Frances pointed out-, 2) they also know all too well that their treatment of choice (forcibly drugging people) is correlated with increased violence, including increased risk of suicide. Big Pharma was forced to include a warning in their antidepressants after years of going to extreme lengths denying that there was any correlation whatsoever http://www.fda.gov/Drugs/DrugSafety/InformationbyDrugClass/UCM096273 . As most people I was unaware of the corruption in the psychiatry establishment until last year, when I had a chance to watch a 60 minutes special by Lesley Stahl on the lack of efficacy of antidepressants. It looked too disturbing to be true, so I did some research on the matter. What I found left me speechless. There are many good sources on the topic but the best summary that I have seen on why psychiatry is a scam was written by Jerry Coyne in his Why Evolution is True blog: http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2011/06/25/is-medical-psychatry-a-scam/ . Note that I am not even getting into things such as the scandals that have plagued every manufacturer of psychotropic drugs (Eli Lilly, Pfizer, Johnson and Johnson, AstraZeneca, etc) that have resulted in said manufacturers paying billions of dollars to settle both civil and criminal charges for unlawful marketing of these drugs. Not even the fact that a 2008 investigation by US Senator Chuck Grassley on the practice of ghostwriting unveiled that the overwhelming majority of those involved in a ghostwriting scandal, including Stanford’s own Alan Schatzberg, were psychiatrists http://www.pogo.org/our-work/articles/2011/ph-iis-20110620.html . These people might have MD or PhD degrees but it doesn’t mean that their quackery is scientific. As John Coyne answered to those who rushed to criticize his piece, “I would add, though, that personal testimony that a drug has “helped” a
    person is not the same thing as positive results in a double-blind
    study. Many people claim that they have been helped by homeopathic
    medicine or other “cures” that can’t be documented scientifically. The
    placebo effect (which must be operative in homeopathy) is well documented.” The ranks of MDs and PhDs who practice homeopathy is huge. In some countries, homeopathy is even taught at medical schools. But just as psychiatry, it’s a huge scam.

  • Rain Bucket

    Psychiatric abuse is a real danger in this country, especially with the DSM5 pathologizing more Americans than ever. More Americans than ever are labelled as mentally ill. The ordinary American is at risk if they go to get treatment from a psychiatrist or psychologist (and sometimes a social worker). For example, if an individual seeks treatment for anxiety or even grief under the new DSM, you would be considered mentally ill because you have been diagnosed under the DSM. Going to a shrink of any kind should be required to come with a warning and full disclosure–you risk your future rights if you seek treatment. Now, you may decide it’s worth it, but each potential patient should at least be made aware of the implications and the risks that any kind of psychiatric treatment brings. To say nothing of the social stigma. This isn’t going away, either. It’s getting worse, as seen by the President himself in urging further background checks on whether a person is mentally ill. Now, in practice as we speak, this should only apply to those adjudicated as a risk to themselves or others, but in practicality, we know that as the DSM’s net is spread wider and wider and that as the mentally ill are increasingly thought of in general terms as being expendable and without rights, that the anti-gun lobby will seek to use the labels under the DSM as a reason to exclude more and more innocent Americans from exercising their 2nd amendment rights. If this doesn’t scare anyone, then it should, because we know from history that this is how tyranny begins–the suppression of gun rights, and the abuse by psychiatry has often been a huge part of it, for example in the Soviet Union. Bottom line, you risk your rights and your future rights if you have anything to do with the psychiatric community. Your choice, but it’s time for full disclosure so you aren’t caught unaware.

  • Rain Bucket

    Full disclosure is needed when anyone walks into a psychology worker’s office. Papers should be signed and understood, stating, “your future rights are at risk. you will be stigmatized by society and blamed for any manner of crimes that others have committed. You might be given drugs that will affect your judgement and cause suicidal or homicidal thoughts. you will be judged by society to be unqualified for the basic rights that others enjoy”, well and I could go on and on. In other words, it’s time that people knew what the heck they were getting into when they go to one of these “doctors”. The DSM is a political document, not a scientific one. If this abuse by psychiatry is allowed to continue, I can envision a day when the psychiatric police are coming, and like in the Soviet Union, if you dare to cross the government, you will be labelled as insane.