James Holmes and Adam Lanza Show It's Time for Obama to Address Mental Illness

We’ve all heard the adage, “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” But when is our government going to decide to act on it?

As the fight over many-bullet-shooting guns rages on, the people pulling the triggers of the guns and killing others are seemingly left out of the conversation. The high volume of mass shootings has us all wondering about gun control, but what we really need is some “people control” in the form of the following: a comprehensive look into mental illness and how we can become better at identifying and treating those affected by mental illness. If we were better informed, we could be better at early detection and providing help to those who need it. The mind of a person who walks into a movie theater or a school and indiscriminately shoots anyone in sight is not healthy.

Mental illness is one of the most taboo subjects in our society. No one wants to believe that anyone they know is affected with it, and those who do recognize behavior that is indicative of mental illness want to label it as simply “crazy.” Meanwhile, those actually affected and living with mental illness float through their daily lives and none of us will ever know that these people needed help.

I currently mentor a high school student in Astoria, Queens. If I had not had a candid conversation with his mother in which she explained what he is dealing with, I would probably unknowingly have made him feel isolated, just like he does when he goes to school. I had absolutely no idea he was struggling; his mother did not explain the situation until she felt comfortable enough with me. As I learned more, I realized that there are many more individuals living with mental conditions that need attention just like many of our physical ailments, such as asthma, diabetes, and corrective lenses.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, just over 20% (or 1 in 5) children either currently have or have at some point had a serious, debilitating mental disorder. For adults, it is about 6% (1 in 17) who suffer from a seriously debilitating mental illness. 1 in 5 and 1 in 17. Think about how many times you were around five other children as a child. The numbers say that one of those individuals was affected by mental illness. As an adult, every time you visit a restaurant, a gas station, or head to the office, chances are you interact with several individuals who are affected by mental illness. And you have no idea because the symptoms are not visible. These individuals are not taking gasps from an inhaler, taking a shot of insulin, or wearing glasses.

If any substantive gun control legislation is going to be effective, it cannot become a law without a brother or a sister in the form of mental health mandates. I’m certainly not suggesting that each person affected with mental illness register like those who wish to have a gun permit. The Hippocratic oath of the medical field prevents this from becoming a possibility, and registration would lead to more discrimination. But something needs to be done. Perhaps this could take the form of a mandatory mental health course for each student from the first grade until they graduate from high school, just to get young kids talking about it, and give them a base of knowledge so that when they do happen to interact with someone affected by mental illness, it will not be the first time that they are exposed to it.

When someone is sick with cancer, people cannot wait to rally around the person and help him/her defeat it. Why not give the same sort of enthusiasm for someone with mental illness? If someone has a mental illness and the public knows it, we tend to separate ourselves from that person, and even go so far as to put obstacles in their way for treatment. We need more mental health screens, early community interventions, and family education for those affected, just like we would with any physical ailment.

It should not be easier in America to obtain a firearm than it is to receive mental health attention and treatment. Our mental health system is not functioning properly. Since 2008, we have cut approximately $4 billion from that system. More and more community mental health programs are vanishing alongside psychiatrist hospital beds. If a person goes into mental health emergency-mode, we are quick to give assistance. But if we continue to wait until the damage is done, the chances of real recovery for the person are slim. If a person sees a physician and cancer is discovered, we do everything we can to treat the person right away. We do not wait until the last minute. Why not do the same with mental illness?

We are afraid to approach and deal with mental illness because it is away-game territory for us. It is unfamiliar to most of us. Quite frankly, it frightens us because we do not fully understand it. But this is exactly why we must work harder to address, identify, and treat it.