While families prepare for 49 funerals in the wake of the Orlando nightclub shootings, our leaders and our nation play blame games.
Instead, we should be thinking deeply about death and life in America.
Human rights advocates blame homophobia for the weekend tragedy. “Build the wall” advocates blame immigration. Candidates and President Barack Obama debate terms such as “radical Islam.” Gun control advocates — and I am one — call for banning assault-style weapons.
But the tragedy in Florida isn’t only about hot-button issues. It’s also about mental health.
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The Orlando gunman’s first wife says he was abusive and mentally unstable. His second wife confesses she tried to talk him out of the attack. Yet neither woman went to authorities.
Had they done so in a state such as California, they could have employed a little-known new law to have authorities temporarily take away the shooter’s guns. But Florida and most states have no such gun violence restraining order for individuals in crisis.
In October, I talked to townspeople in Roseburg, Oregon, the day after a 29-year-old former Los Angeles man shot and killed nine people at a community college. Law enforcement officials said Christopher Harper-Mercer had long-term mental illness, something they learned after the deaths.
It was the same four years ago when 20 children were slaughtered at Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. Adam Lanza’s father — after the killings — said he suspected his son was schizophrenic.
In some ways, mental health in the United States has gone backward while technology has leapt forward. The reason?
In an era in which PTSD is finally coming out of the closet, our 20th-century culture about mental illness isn’t simply shameful. It’s deadly.
Instead of passing and employing gun violence restraining order laws, our secret shame about mental health issues enables people in crisis to be locked and loaded.
The reasons why humans pick up guns and shoot other humans are as complicated as the world of mental illness.
Experts differentiate between what they call “disturbed” people and the diagnosable mentally ill. A terrorist may be disturbed, yet takes action based on ideology, beliefs, values.
Obama and the FBI determined that the San Bernardino attacks last year in which 14 people were killed was terrorism.
That may also be the case with the homophobic, internet-inspired racist who pledged allegiance to ISIS before opening fire in the Pulse nightclub. Obama called his actions “homegrown terrorism.” For now, though, I’m going with the first wife’s diagnosis — “mental illness.”
About one-fourth of Americans at some point in a given year suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder, according to the Kim Foundation. At some time in their life, nearly half of all Americans struggle with mental issues.
Very few people with mental illness pick up a gun. But some do.
Significantly, mental illness is often treatable. But too often, those who need treatment the most get the least treatment.
Jeffrey Nagel is chief of operations for the Orange County (California) Health Care Agency. He cautions that because of shame and the complexity of the issue, mental illness is often misunderstood.
Overwhelmingly, Nagel emphasizes, people with mental illness aren’t violent.
Rather than branding a shooter, Nagel suggests the national conversation turn toward a call to action. “Let’s open a discussion about mental illness.
“Let’s reduce the shame because treatment can reduce someone from acting out.”
Nagel says the shame of mental illness is shifting thanks to several changes. Mental health experts openly share they have family members who suffer. Peers do the same.
“There should be no shame in treatment,” he says. “For most, there’s a genetic component. Yet some still feel shame.
“Reduce the shame and get them into care,” Nagel says of people suffering. “Without treatment, they are more likely to be more violent.”
Six months ago, California’s pioneering Gun Law Violence Restraining Order went into effect.
Modeled after the state’s domestic violence restraining order, the new law is aimed at gun owners who pose a threat to themselves or others.
Use the law if it applies. There is no shame in saving lives.
David Whiting is a columnist for the Orange County Register. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.