The Wrong Scapegoat (October 4, 2015)

My husband and I were so excited when Pope Francis visited the United States, and so inspired by his outreach. But we were secretly frightened that there would be an ugly incident of good old American gun violence while he was here. We both held our breath until he was safely on his way to his next port of call.

“I want to talk about pretending. . . In the face of the killings in Oregon yesterday, I honestly don’t know what to do or say, other than that our hearts are broken for those struck by this senseless tragedy. . . I can’t pretend that it didn’t happen. I also can’t pretend to know what to do to prevent what happened yesterday all the times it has happened before. But I think pretending is part of the problem. These things happen over and over again, and we are naturally horrified and shocked when we hear about them. But then we change nothing, and we pretend that it won’t happen again. I (don’t) know what the solution is, but I do know that one of the definitions of insanity is doing nothing and then pretending that nothing will change.” – Stephen Colbert

Pretending is part of the problem. A bigger part of the problem is blaming it on mental illness. That’s another game of pretending. And it’s another form of stigmatizing anyone who has a mental disorder, and discouraging anyone who might think of seeking treatment from getting it. Shame on anyone who uses mental illness as the reason for mass shootings!

I did some research on mental illness and violence, and found an eminently readable report in the November 19, 2014 issue of The New Yorker, “Is There a Link Between Gun Violence and Mental Health?” I have included a link so that you may read it for yourselves. Dr. Jeffrey Swanson, Professor of Psychiatry at Duke University, has spent thirty years researching “the perceived intersection of violence and mental illness.” http://www.newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/almost-link-mental-health-gun-violence

“When Swanson first analyzed the ostensible connection between violence and mental illness, looking at more than ten thousand individuals (both mentally ill and healthy) during the course of one year, he found that serious mental illness alone was a risk factor for violence—from minor incidents, like shoving, to armed assault—in only four per cent of cases. . . When Swanson broke the samples down by demographics, he found that the occurrence of violence was more closely associated with whether someone was male, poor, and abusing either alcohol or drugs—and that those three factors alone could predict violent behavior with or without any sign of mental illness. If someone fit all three of those categories, the likelihood of them committing a violent act was high, even if they weren’t also mentally ill. If someone fit none, then mental illness was highly unlikely to be predictive of violence.”

In 1963 President Kennedy signed the Community Mental Health Act, providing for deinstitutionalization and the establishment of community-based mental health centers. “Unfortunately, only half of the proposed centers were ever built, none were fully funded, and the act didn’t provide money to operate them long-term. Some states saw an opportunity to close expensive state hospitals without spending some of the money on community-based care. Deinstitutionalization accelerated after the adoption of Medicaid in 1965. During the Reagan administration, the remaining funding for the act was converted into a mental-health block grant for states. Since the CMHA was enacted, 90 percent of beds have been cut at state hospitals.”*

Our treatment, or lack of treatment, for our brothers and sisters with mental illness is shameful. Our silence when others make jokes or blame them for society’s ills is disgraceful. Our stigmatizing of them as the cause of gun violence is unpardonable. We need to treat each other with love and respect – that means everyone. And we need to stand up for each other, and to make sure that each of us gets the care we need.

“Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body.” 1 Corinthians 12:14-16

Forgive us, Dear Lord, when we close our eyes to the problems around us, or choose to lay the blame at the feet of others. We know that no problem is too big for you. Help us to seek answers, and to make them happen, for every one of your children is precious and beloved. Amen.

*SMITH, MICHELLE R. (October 20, 2013). “50 years later, Kennedy’s vision for mental health not realized”. The Associated Press.

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