I want to discuss an editorial and two syndicated columns about the Newtown, Conn., shooting, all three of which appeared on the opinion pages of the Dec. 20 Herald. The editorial was by Jeanny Sharp, Herald editor and publisher, and the syndicated columns were by Rich Lowry and Donald Kaul.
The hedadline over Sharp’s editorial was “Issue Exposed.” It was a good headline. The “issue” is mental health.
The tagline, “Expert: Linking violence, mental health inaccurate,” is what disturbs me. The tagline stems from a comment by Dr. Leslie Bjork, clinical director of the Elizabeth Layton Center for Hope and Guidance in Ottawa, indicating that any link between mental health and violence is a “myth.” It is not a myth; it is fact. If Bjork is an expert, how could she not know the information I found on Google?
It took me only 30 seconds to Google this question. Of the numerous possibilities, I selected the entry from “Mental Illness Policy Org (http://mentalillnesspolicy.org/consequences/violence).” This site referenced 47 studies from 1978-2006. All-inclusive, these studies involved more than 21,000 subjects. A statistical p-value of less than 0.001 was given for several of the studies. This is good stuff. Some of their conclusions were as follows:
• There is an increased risk of violent behavior in individuals with severe mental illness, averaging about 10-fold greater (my average from multiple data points) than the general population. Males are at a greater risk than females.
• The closing of psychiatric hospitals and the general reduction in psychiatric beds has resulted in a dramatic increase in the incidence of violence in the community setting, as well as arrests.
• Medications reduce the incidence of violence. However, those with a psychosis tend to deny that they need help and do not take their medicine. Without medicine, the probability of violent behavior dramatically increases.
• The use of alcohol exacerbates the violent behavior of schizophrenics and other severely mentally ill patients.
Thus, the relationship between untreated severe mental illness and violent behavior exists.
Now, here is the key. Not all mental illnesses are severe. There are many, many levels of mental illness, and this could be what Bjork was alluding to. A small percentage of such individuals are prone to violence; the others are stigmatized.
The stigma of mental illness is very real. Most of us are extremely fearful of mental illness, when in reality it is no different, medically, than any other illness. You either know somebody and/or have a family member who is mentally ill. If an acquaintance or family member has the flu or appendicitis, does this stigmatize them? Of course not. Why mental illness?
The “system” for dealing with mental health issues is a problem. We attempt to use the system, but as columnist Lowry pointed out, the system has its faults.
To illustrate this, consider the following scenario: A physician refers a troubled individual for an evaluation by mental health professionals. The person refuses to go. A bad situation just gets worse. A particular incident gets out of hand; the police are called, but determine there is no danger to anyone and they leave. If there is violence or other reasons to get involved, they take the troubled one to the hospital that no longer has psychiatric beds. The hospital releases the individual. The situation continues to deteriorate and the affected person ends up on the street and eventually in jail.
Yep, in this, the 21st century, we have closed and/or taken away beds at the psychiatric hospitals, removed the psychiatric beds from the general hospital, and in effect transferred those patients to jail. The number of psychiatric beds, according to Lowry, on a per capita basis is at 1850 levels. That’s more than 150 years backward, folks. This precedes the work of Sigmund Freud!
Lowry states that at least 50 percent of the homeless are severly mentally ill, and proposes the hypothetical, “Imagine the ... outrage if people with Alzheimer’s were permitted to wander around ... uncared for. But by some perverse logic, it’s considered OK for schizophrenics.”
Another viewpoint is offered by Kaul, another syndicated columnist. Kaul temporarily has come out of retirement to go after the National Rifle Association and wants to repeal part of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. He thinks it is “badly written, confusing and more trouble than it’s worth.” He argues that the intent at the time, put in the context of a “well regulated militia,” is out-dated and not in sync with the weapons of today.
And then, Kaul really steps into it. He is ready to “declare the NRA a terrorist organization and make membership illegal,” as was done back in the 1940s and 1950s with the Communist Party. He accurately states, “ ... the NRA has led to the deaths of more of us than American Commies ever did.” He also advocates making ownership of unlicensed assault rifles a felony. In the end, he admits that “none of that is going to happen, of course.”
Will this be the case? Nothing is going to happen?
Does increasing availability of hospital beds for the mentally ill make sense? I think it does. I am sure it does! And I am interested in your opinion too.
— Dr. Richard Warren, Ottawa