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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Mental health issues enter gun control debate, rhetoric


This article is the third and last in a series about issues surrounding gun control. 

On Dec. 14, Adam Lanza walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School and shot 20 schoolchildren and six adults, after shooting his mother earlier that day. He then committed suicide. He was 20 years old.

It remains unclear whether Lanza had Aspergers or autism, whether he had ever been treated for mental illness and whether that affected his violent actions. It is clear, however, that the massacre has triggered a re-evaluation of the effectiveness of our mental health systems. 

In the month since the brutal shooting in Newtown, Conn., the nation has been locked in debate about how to move forward to prevent such tragedies. This debate has focused heavily on gun control, as President Obama's 23 proposed executive actions and legislative measures demonstrate. However, mental health in relation to gun violence remains a salient issue, as evidence of mental health disorders has appeared in shooters from Virginia Tech to Columbine. 

Obama's plan includes a measure that would eliminate legal barriers for states to make health information available to the national background check system. He has also proposed a measure that would implement mental health parity, meaning that health insurers would be required to comply with a 2008 law that madates that they to cover mental health charges equally with physical care charges. Obama expressed intention to initiate a "national dialogue" on mental health led by Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. These proposals lack a specific time line and remain vague in their implementation.

Connecticut is also making strides in reforming and improving its mental health systems. In a legislative task force convened this week, Connecticut lawmakers seemed determined to increase access to mental health services, according to a Jan 29 article in the Wall Street Journal. Connecticut is also considering similar measures to those passed by New York, which include forcing people with severe mental illness into treatment and mandating psychiatrists to inform the authorities of patients who are potentially dangerous.

According to many, however, including Director of Training and Continuing Education Director at Tufts Counseling and Mental Health Services Julie Jampel, mental illness has become conflated with violence as a result of these shootings, when mental health issues don't necessarily indicate shooter potential.

"Most people with mental illness are not violent. If anything, they're violent against themselves in the form of suicide," she said.

"I think the vast majority of these people, if you met them on the street, or ... in a gun store, you wouldn't think, 'Oh, this person is crazy, let me not sell them this gun.' I think the vast majority of people have personality quirks, or they're a little bit off ... [but they] are not going to purchase a rifle and go out and shoot [20] schoolchildren," sophomore Darcy Anderson said. "I think that our definition of mental illness is so widely spread, and it encompasses so many people, that it is not an accurate tool to determine who can be a safe gun owner."

The Safe School Initiative is a comprehensive 2002 study that examined 37 school shootings and attacks in order to find similarities and motives for school shooters. The study found that young men committed all school shootings and 81 percent of the attackers committed the attack alone. Professor of Sociology Paul Joseph cited a culture of isolation as a potential factor in shootings.

"One of the things that I think is distinct about the United States is  . . . compared to other countries, how alone many people are," he said. "They either are objectively alone-they don't have that much contact with friends or with family-or subjectively, they feel themselves to be alone."

Sophomore Hannah Arnow added that this phenomenon could contribute to a reluctance of those with mental illnesses to seek out help.

"There's always this pride of being the person pushing the boundaries, the person going the extra distance on your own, and not getting help from other people -- being the self-made man," she said. "People internalize a lot of things in America because they have this image of themselves."

However, Jampel asserts that despite common characteristics schools shooters may share, it is nearly impossible to predict violence, even from young people who exhibit signs of mental disturbance.

"Once somebody commits a violent act, you think, 'Oh my god, we had this clue, and we had that clue.' But in the absence of that act, looking forward, you cannot necessarily predict it," she said. "When you're looking forward, it's much ... blurrier and murky, and much less clear."

According to Jampel, there is a lack of research on the relationship between mental health and gun violence, which causes un-based assumptions when it comes to school shootings like Newtown. The media has criticized a speculated connection between Lanza's possible Asperger's and his personality as an isolated, violent shooter. In a Dec. 16 article in the Christian Science Monitor, psychologist Elizabeth Laugeson, assistant clinical professor at the University of California Los Angeles said, "There really is no clear connection between Asperger's and violent behavior." 

Jampel suggested that mental health is usually seen in terms of criminality.

"In general, a lot of people feel that guns need to be out of the hands of people who would be criminals, who are so mentally unstable that they cannot control their impulses or cannot see right from wrong," she said. "There's a lot of really good treatment for mental health conditions, but when you introduce a thing like violence into the mix, the treatment is imperfect."

Many pinpoint the way the media portray gun violence and the mentally ill as an important factor in perpetuating shootings.

"I think people would not kill other people if, in these mass shootings, they didn't get the attention. These are people who, for some reason, either need attention, want attention, or ... want the gratification," Arnow said. "They want to be remembered -- they want to leave their mark on society. [I think the] attention to which we glorify these mentally ill people is the reason that they do it."

Despite the attempt to prevent gun violence through the lens of mental health, many argue that guns and gun control remain the primary problems.

However, some continue to assert the unconditional importance of gun control in preventing incidents of gun violence.

"At the end of the day, the debate about gun control is not about who feels alone or how we have a culture of violence in our society. At the end of the day, the debate about gun control comes down to guns," Anderson said. "If people don't have these weapons available, even if they do feel lonely, even if they do feel sad or angry, or upset ... it doesn't matter. Of course it is a problem that people are feeling depressed or lonely, but if they don't have the tools to kill people, then killing won't be a problem."

Daniel Fisher, executive director of the National Empowerment Center, testified before Vice President Joe Biden's committee on forming executive gun control proposals with the message that mentally ill people are not inherently violent and that mental health should be separated from gun control.

"We need to be more preventive and pro-active instead of reactive. To do that, we need to separate the issues. 

Gun control is a separate discussion unrelated to 'mental illness,'" Fisher said in a public statement. "We need to create trauma-sensitive communities ... People like the various shooters will be identified by caring others (like neighborhood watch) and rather than withdrawing and brooding into a place of despair, they'll find people who care to balance out the negative and trauma of their lives. We do not need a formal system of force and coercion to increase the trauma by bullying people into 'treatment,'" he said. 

-- Lily Sieradzki contributed reporting to this article.