Gun Violence: Blaming the Mentally Ill

“‘People who have mental health issues should not have guns,’ Mr. Cuomo told reporters. ‘They could hurt themselves, they could hurt other people.’” (NYTimes.com 1/15/2013)

True. Anyone with a gun could hurt themselves or other people. While I am hardily in favor of restricting the sale of lethal weapons, I am concerned that statements such as the one above works to further stigmatize an already marginalized population. Increasing stigma around mental health issues will only make people LESS likely to seek support for themselves and their children.

Also, how are we defining “mental health issues?” I suffered from severe depression as an adolescent, though I am currently a happy thriving adult. Do I still count as someone with “mental health issues?” Do you only count as having a “mental health issue” if you seek treatment and your “issue” is documented by a licensed mental health professional? What about the millions of Americans who suffer with mental health problems but remain undiagnosed? Is it okay to sell them a gun so long as they don’t mention their troubles to a doctor or therapist?

Long story short, I completely agree that this epidemic of mass shootings indicates more than a just a gun problem; these tragedies point to a failure of the mental health system in this country. I firmly believe that any comprehensive approach to preventing more of these tragedies requires gun legislation reform as well as a close examination of the state of mental health in this country. However, I do NOT think that legislation that further stigmatizes mental illness is the way to go. Helping people who struggle with mental illness to receive the treatment and support needed to live fulfilling lives is not exactly the same as pegging the mentally ill as criminals.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not arguing that people who report that they plan to harm themselves or others should be in possession of assault weapons. I am arguing that only addressing one side of the issue (i.e. punishing those who struggle with mental illness rather than promoting mental health and wellness) will not lead to the kind of change that I think the legislators hope to achieve. And in the meanwhile, mental health becomes even more taboo and stigmatized in the process.

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