Look within for solutions to mental illness, violence

To the editor:

It’s happened again. The latest catastrophe at a Washington Navy Yard marks yet another mass shooting involving a gunman suffering from mental illness. In the last seven years, nearly 900 American lives have been lost through gun violence. There have been 250 separate incidents this year alone (2006 FBI data). We seem to be gaining momentum.

It’s imperative that the smallest of communities and the nation at large engage in meaningful dialogue about the sad correlation between serious mental illness and the availability of firearms. Like many social conundrums, solutions begin with education. For some reason, Americans find it more difficult to admit they have a mental illness than high blood pressure – both inheritable diseases. The stigma of being perceived as “crazy” or “psycho” prevents many people from seeking the support and guidance they need. Friends and relatives often criticize family members who are willing for treatment and the typical lay person is grossly misinformed about what triggers mental illness, how symptoms manifest, or how to approach a loved one in a caring and non-judgmental manner. Some people believe their mental health treatment will somehow show up on a background check conducted for employment purposes. These myths need to be challenged in order to raise awareness and correct misconceptions.

Unfortunately, the Navy Yard gunman sought help, but the system let him down. As a society, we are often challenged to balance public safety with the right to privacy. “Bizarre behavior” could be reported to authorities, but unless a mentally ill person makes a statement of intent to harm, the law clearly states that little can be done without a patient’s consent. The VA psychiatrists who evaluated this gunman should have referred him to inpatient treatment, but if he refused, criteria for involuntary commitment varies from state-to-state. Instead, he probably received a pat on the back and a reminder to take his medication.

A common thread of mental illness now connects Columbine to Virginia Tech to Sandy Hook and these won’t be the last. I don’t know what the answer is, but I do know that an elementary school bookkeeper named Antoinette Tuff in Decatur, Georgia saved a lot of lives last month when she applied a mixture of compassion and courage to a troubled teen prepared to add another school to the list. Maybe the answer lies within each one of us.

Natasha Ufema