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Mental Health Reform as Important as Gun Reform

The national outcry for new gun laws is great. Terrific. I’m all for it."We don’t have the cultural traditions that would let us see both gun ownership and mental/emotional disturbance as societal facts, as manifestations of what the community as a whole is doing," says Chernus

But may I humbly suggest that the opponents of gun control are half right. Guns, all by themselves, don’t kill people. The other half of the truth -- the half that we are not hearing nearly enough about -- is this: Mentally or emotionally disturbed people with guns kill people.

I’ve been working with a community organizing group trying to promote public support for mental health treatment. It has made me very aware of the profound reluctance we see all around us (even in a very liberal and wealthy county like mine) to treat mental/emotional disturbance as a communal problem.

When we talk about mentally or emotionally disturbed individuals, our society puts the emphasis on “individuals.” Without really thinking about it, most of us assume that we’re dealing with peculiar cases, each one caused by some unique set of problems encased in one individual’s brain.

We just don’t have many cultural resources at all to think about mental/emotional disturbance as a societal problem. Oh, there’s shelves full of books in university libraries which can teach us to see it that way. But that academic perspective has not percolated through to our shared public myths. We still tend, as a society, rather reflexively to see troubled people as individual “weirdos,” unique outliers from the norm.

And our natural inclination, most of the time, is to stay as far away from them as we can -- unless they are family members or otherwise connected to us in ways we couldn’t escape even if we wanted to. Then we try our best to get help for them. And we usually discover that the resources our society provides are far too meager to give them the help they really need -- precisely because, as a society, we don’t think of such disturbances as a collective problem. So we don’t even think about, much less provide the resources for, collective solutions.

I suspect this pattern has its deepest roots in a tradition that was pervasive through the late 19th century and still affects us deeply: viewing mental/emotional disturbance through the lens of religious and spiritual language. I’ve spoken with ministers who are trying hard to bring their fellow clergy into fruitful conversation with mental health professionals. It’s an uphill struggle, they say, in part because there are still many clergy who assume that personal prayer and spiritual renewal is the only appropriate treatment.

What we have here, to some degree that’s impossible to quantify, is a living legacy of the days when mental and emotional disturbance were interpreted as signs of sin. (“Evil visited this community today,” said Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy, as if the the tragedy were caused by some distant, utterly alien metaphysical force.) Just as sin was seen to be the responsibility of the individual, so mental/emotional disturbance is still seen to be, if not the individual’s responsibility, at least an individual problem.

The proud American tradition of individualism is also, I suspect, at the root of the popular resistance to gun control. The Washington Post's wonk Ezra Klein points out that, while support for the idea of gun control has dropped, the number of American households with guns has dropped even faster in the last 40 years.

So the objection to gun control laws doesn’t come only from people who have guns and want to hold on to them (though they are the largest portion of the naysayers). It also comes from people who imagine that they might some day feel the need for a gun to defend themselves, their families, and their homes. They fear giving up that individual right. They don’t want their individual freedom abridged.

It’s too bad that we are so individualistic. We don’t have the cultural traditions that would let us see both gun ownership and mental/emotional disturbance as societal facts, as manifestations of what the community as a whole is doing.

So we go on letting individuals arm themselves to protect their individual rights and freedom, or so our national myth tells us. (Illinois just became the 50th state to allow citizens to carry concealed guns.)  But we tragically underfund and ignore societal programs to help the mentally/emotionally disturbed, because we simply don’t see any relationship between them and the rest of us, or so our national myth tells us.

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