Each time it was inferred that Adam Lanza suffered from Asperger’s syndrome, or that Colorado shooting suspect James Holmes and Gabby Gifford’s shooter Jared Loughner were schizophrenic, mental health providers winced.
Not only does blaming mental illness for rampage shootings perpetuate the false notion that mental illness predisposes one to violence, it opens the door to all sorts of discrimination.
“I even heard supposedly highly educated people in the media using such derogatory terms as ‘those lunatics’ or the ‘crazies,’ ” said Marti Hurford, Ph.D., of Community Network Services in Farmington Hills. “It just stigmatizes a whole population. There is no room for good discussion when those labels are used.”
Community Network Services is the largest provider of mental health services in Oakland County, serving more than 4,000 severely mentally disabled adults at any given time.
While the American Psychiatric Association says the vast majority of people who are violent do not suffer from mental illnesses (statistically, in fact, mentally ill people are far more likely to be victims of violence) stigma and fear of being shunned are one of the greatest barriers to intervention and treatment.
Soon after the Newtown tragedy, “the discussion quickly went to the politically charged subject of gun control,” says Brad Ewing, a vice president of CNS. “And while I don’t discount the importance of reducing gun violence, the bigger issue is about mental health. We need to be talking about better access to services and help people get beyond the stigma so that people who need help can get it.”
To that end, last week’s Obama administration pledge to strengthen the nation’s mental health system as a way to reduce gun violence was welcomed by mental health providers. According to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 45 million adults suffered some form of mental illness in 2011. About 11 million had a serious illness: 40 percent of them did not get care.
As mental health advocates are quick to point out: it is far easier to purchase a gun than it is to access mental health care.
Certainly costs and limits placed on care by insurance companies can be prohibitive. While the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 mandates that all diseases, including mental illness and addictions, receive the same coverage and benefits, Ewing says: “There is still not true parity to mental health. People with mental illnesses are still perceived by some insurance companies as different than, rather than equal to anybody else suffering from a chronic disease.”
Those who advocate for the mentally ill were buoyed by a push for educators to be trained in “mental health first aid.” Just like first aid for physical health emergencies, knowing first aid for the brain is an invaluable tool to understanding symptoms of mental illness and knowing how and when to intervene.
“But just as the public would not abandon a person with a medical emergency lying somewhere,” says Ewing, “they must be equipped with the body of knowledge that would enable them to see the same person with a mental health emergent need and not turn away.”
CNS teaches mental health first-aid training and certification to everyone from human resources professionals and teachers to advocates for the homeless, first responders and city employees. It also has a nationally recognized Anti-Stigma Program and also plans to open a primary care health clinic next year.
Also high on the list of recommendations is a robust referral system for children and adolescents with mental health and behavioral problems. Ewing said this would address what he calls the most “under-identified and underserved” population. Even though adolescence is when many mental illnesses begin to develop — including bipolar disorder, depression and schizophrenia, experts say less than half receive treatment.
“Many fall through the cracks,” says Ewing.
The good news is that serious mental illness can be successfully treated and people can live full productive lives.
“We provide the services that make hope and recovery possible,” says Ewing. “We know how to do this. We just need to educate the public and get those that are suffering better access to care.”