While the gun control debate wages on following last month’s deadly Connecticut shooting, some mental health professionals are concerned the conversation isn’t addressing the right issues.
As arguments center on background checks and banning military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, psychologist Mark King with Psychiatry and Psychology Associates in Gainesville said more focus should be on how society deals with mental illness.
Part of a new plan to reduce gun violence by President Barack Obama announced Wednesday involves improving mental health services, particularly for children.
The plan specifies the focus on children is because 75 percent of mental illnesses appear before age 24. Recent mass shootings at Tucson, Ariz., Newtown, Conn., Aurora, Colo., and Virginia Tech all were committed by a student or young person.
King said the cerebral cortex, the part of the brain that is responsible for abstract thinking, does not fully develop until age 25.
While it isn’t known for certain if the shooters had a mental illness, King said it’s likely.
He said the topics that come up most commonly in the gun control debate are misguided.
“Not to focus on the fact that these people who have committed these terrible atrocities are mentally ill, and focusing primarily on that (guns) is misguided,” he said.
In a society filled with violent images, King said a young person with a mental illness could have difficulty discerning reality from fantasy.
The need for additional gun violence research is outlined in the administration’s plan. The president issued a Presidential Memorandum directing the Centers for Disease Control to research the cause and prevention of gun violence.
The president is asking Congress to provide funds to the CDC to research the relationship between video games, media images and violence.
Mental health professionals are uncertain of the effects these images may have on young minds.
But King said video games are “essentially desensitizing children to violence.”
“Why are we comfortable promoting violence in our society,” King said. “Why are we so interested in policing something after the fact rather than being proactive and taking care of things such as mental health? Pay more attention to it so that these atrocities are being reduced.”
In an effort to prevent tragedies like those in Colorado and Connecticut, the plan calls to improve access to mental health care, increase education about mental health and to launch a national conversation to end the stigma associated with mental illness.
According to the plan, less than half of the people with diagnosable mental health problems receive the treatment they need.
Nearly 1 in 4 Americans have a diagnosable mental illness, including depression or anxiety, and 6 percent suffer from a serious mental illness, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
King said it’s unfortunate that a national discussion about mental health came only after two of the most recent mass shootings.
Having a mental illness in no way predisposes a person toward violence. However, left untreated some mood and thought disorders, like depression or schizophrenia, could lead a person to do harm to themselves or others.
There are many successful treatment options for people with a mental illness. Most conditions greatly improve with treatment and therapy options.
“Most violent crimes are committed by people who do not have a mental illness,” Ellyn Jeager, Director of Public Policy and Advocacy for Mental Health America of Georgia, wrote in an email to The Times.
It’s important to remember that the issue with mental health and gun violence isn’t just about what a person may do to others but what they may do to themselves.
According to the CDC, suicide was the 10th leading cause of death in 2010, the latest date available. Between 1991 and 2009, suicide death rates among 45- to 64-year-old males from firearms were greater than all other suicide methods combined.
King expressed frustration with the difficulty families can face when trying to seek treatment for a loved one with a serious mental illness.
He said there have been countless times in his 25-year career where families know a person is in danger but are unable to have them evaluated involuntarily because the patient does not express that they are a danger or intent to harm themselves or others.
The president’s plan calls for initiatives to provide training to educators and other adults who regularly interact with children to learn about how to detect, respond and encourage treatment in children and young adults.
Training for additional mental health professionals to work specifically with students and young adults also is outlined.
By encouraging a cultural climate of education and understanding about mental health at a young age, society can end the stigma associated with mental health and become more mentally healthy, King said.
“All the gun control in the world is not going to reduce mental illness. That’s all there is to it,” King said.