In the wake of the most recent mass shooting in Oregon, our screens play out the all-too-familiar script of politicians, experts and laypeople alternatively blaming guns and mental illness for the tragedy. Inevitably, many ask, “Why didn’t Chris Mercer’s parents do something to stop him?”
As the mother of a teenage son who has bipolar disorder and who exhibited violent and antisocial behaviors until he was correctly diagnosed and treated, I see mass shootings through a different lens. While others ask about Mercer’s parents, I question a society that has repeatedly turned its back on our most vulnerable members.
Sadly, the conversation about mental illness has not changed since Newtown, Conn. In fact, the stigma of mental illness only increases when we limit our discussions about brain disorders to outlier tragedies. Consider these facts about mental illness and gun violence:
• While the rates of mass shootings are increasing, these events are still extremely rare, constituting only 1 percent to 3 percent of all gun deaths in the United States each year.
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• The majority of gun-related deaths — 60 percent — are people who died by suicide. Of these, as many as 90 percent suffered from mental illness.
• Most violence is not caused by people who have mental illness, and when treated, people with mental illness are no more likely to be violent than the general population. In fact, people with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence and discrimination.
Schizophrenia and bipolar disorder largely affect our young people. By failing to provide early interventions and timely treatments, we are effectively condemning too many of our children to a life in prison or on the streets.
The “Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act,” HR2646, is a bipartisan bill in Congress that would provide better treatment options for people who have serious mental illness. It would clarify confusing privacy laws that prevent doctors from communicating with caregivers and end arbitrary restrictions on numbers of hospital beds and days of treatment. Our representatives should support this bill.
What people who blame parents after mass shootings don’t understand is that we can’t get help for our kids. In most cases, that help simply does not exist. In the face of increasing need, the number of inpatient psychiatric hospital beds in the U.S. continues to decline as states, including Idaho, slash their mental health budgets. Patients wait for days or even weeks in the emergency room for a psychiatric bed to open so that they can receive care. And if a child with mental illness does not recognize the need for treatment, parents must turn to the courts, where they will be required to prove that their child poses an imminent threat of harm to him/herself or others.
Mental health reform opponents argue for patients’ rights. As a mother of a teenager whose treatment has restored him to a life of mainstream school and friends, I ask, what about the right to treatment?
Timely treatment maybe could have helped Chris Harper-Mercer and all the notorious young men who came before him. We need to end the shame and stigma of mental illness. If a friend or a loved one’s behavior suddenly changes, if he or she becomes hostile, suspicious or pushes us away, we should push back and seek help. With early intervention, correct diagnosis and proper treatment, many people who have mental illness can live happy, productive lives.
Liza Long, of Boise, is the author of “The Price of Silence: A Mom’s Perspective on Mental Illness.” She serves on the board of the International Bipolar Foundation.