Perhaps my experience in public health makes me more sensitive to the issue – or maybe the media is making the most out of every sensational headline – but it seems like hardly a month goes by without news of another random shooting. Another school shooting. Another mall shooting. Another shooting at a theatre or park.
The same feeling comes over you – sadness, fear, anger – and when details are revealed, it’s the same basic story. The shooter was a quiet person who had often sought mental health services and whose parents or caregivers had struggled to get them the help they so desperately needed. Almost all of these shooters had been in and out of mental health facilities or been seen in mental health clinics, and most needed medications that were never prescribed or taken.
I know the Constitution gives every U.S. citizen the right to bear arms and America is home to millions of people who are lawful gun owners; from hunters and target shooters to collectors and other enthusiasts. I am not one of those people and I don’t understand why any of my neighbors would need an automatic weapon that holds 40 or 50 rounds of ammunition. But I do understand they have a right to own one.
This is not another plea for gun control. It’s an indictment of America’s shotgun approach to mental healthcare. Because while there are all sorts of organizations focused on the weapons involved in these shootings, no one seems to be zeroing in on those pulling the trigger and the real cause behind their actions.
It’s time to start discussing how we provide more consistent, effective care for the most vulnerable in our society: Young men and women who have been bullied or ignored, who’ve been diagnosed with schizophrenia or manic-depression, who’ve been pushed off onto long waiting lists to see a psychologist or get into group therapy.
Our mental health system is full of holes and pitfalls, and has become increasingly more dysfunctional over the last 40 years. We’ve succeeded by leaps and bounds in physical health care – from education to medication – and virtually any citizen can see a physician at a manageable cost. Yet, many of those who suffer from mental illness seem virtually invisible and often end up on the street.
How can we fail to see and help those of us who are struggling? We pay attention to the individuals around us: The quiet neighbor who wants to talk when we are busy getting into our cars; our children’s friends who need an extra hug or are acting out to get attention. Some of us go out of our way to establish eye contact with everyone we see, to give a smile or a nod to people we pass in the market who may seem lonely or somehow in need.
It’s time we raise that kind of personal kindness to a national level. Pay attention to every lawmaker in your city, your state and at the federal level. Are they about to pass cuts in mental health services? Are they ignoring legislation that could implement positive changes in the current mental health system?
If so, fill their email boxes with complaints, write about it on all your social media pages, tweet about it and mention these lawmakers by name. Politicians crave positive reinforcement and are petrified of negative press. Get out and vote. Don’t miss a single election or an opportunity for your voice to be heard.
And pray for every family that is dealing with someone who is not mentally stable. They need support, understanding and love. Someday we might look back at this period in our history and be grateful that, as a nation, we learned to focus on our most important issues.
Photo courtesy of Texarkana Gazette, 2014.