The Mental Health Awareness and Improvement Act – an amendment to the Safe Communities, Safe Schools Act, a sweeping initiative that is being considered in the wake of the shootings in Newtown, CT - received nearly unanimous support in the Senate yesterday. Never look a gift horse in the mouth, so thanks to Congress for the proposed funding.
Nevertheless the motivation for this wave of generosity is driven by the stigma associated with mental illness. The financial benefit the mental health community may receive is more than offset by its cost, i.e., reinforcing the connection between violence and mental illness in the public perception. Discussing mental health funding in the context of gun violence legislation erroneously transforms a public health issue into a public safety issue. Once again, people with serious mental illness get the blame.
Summer Berman, Fountain House Executive Fellow, took up the dilemma of addressing mental health reform within the context of gun violence in a recent blog post. She wrote:
“[W]hen we use the risk of violence as a rationale for better and more available services for people with mental illness, we put at risk all the good works we have done over the years to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness. When we conflate mental illness and violence we do ourselves and our community a disservice."
The Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, the leading national legal-advocacy organization representing people with mental disabilities, asserts that people with psychiatric disabilities are “a misplaced priority for gun legislation.” Earlier this week, Bazelon announced the release of a paper titled Wrong Focus: Mental Health in the Gun Safety Debate. I’m grateful to them for allowing me to share a portion of the announcement, a thoughtful statement from Jennifer Mathis, their Director of Programs.
"Studies have shown that mental illness by itself is not statistically related to violence, and that people with serious mental illnesses are far more likely to be the victims of violent crimes than the perpetrators. And yet, despite the facts, many lawmakers and journalists continue to stigmatize people with psychiatric disabilities as the primary concern related to gun violence.
Though fixing our broken mental health system is an imperative, we should do so separately from the gun debate, as mental health reforms are likely to have little impact on gun violence.
We know that services such as supportive housing, mobile services, supported employment, and peer support services are extremely effective in enabling people with psychiatric disabilities to succeed. These technologies are also less costly than emergency rooms, psychiatric hospitals, jails, and shelters. But they are unavailable to thousands of Americans who need them.
We should afford Americans with psychiatric disabilities the services they need because it will improve people's lives and save money. Not because it is a distraction from the primary causes of gun violence."
People living with mental illness are not just a problem to be dealt with, as indicated by the tenor of the current national conversation. They can live full, productive, and satisfying lives as contributing members of our society. Many do. Centers in the community that support recovery and opportunity are crucial, and we enthusiastically support funding initiatives to establish and improve them. However, we are not grateful if it comes at the expense of the reputation of the people they are meant to serve.
Kenneth J. Dudek
President, Fountain House