It was breaking news that flashed across the screen just as I was about to turn off the television and head out the door: An active shooter was at the Navy Yard in Washington, DC. I was saddened by the news, but not shocked. The occurrence of gun violence had happened so frequently in the last few years that a low-grade numbness had begun to take root. As analysts talked to reporters and television cameras, the issue of the easy access to high-powered weapons was raised once again, and as expected, the state of the perpetrator’s mental health was called into question.
It turned out that the shooter did have mental health issues, and although he had been arrested twice previously, had gun related altercations, and had even sought help at two Veterans Affairs hospitals, he did not receive the necessary treatment that might have kept him and his twelve victims alive. Maybe there was a concern about confidentiality, and while confidentiality is essential in therapeutic relationships, so is a duty to warn. Could it be that his symptoms were masked, or were his treatment providers at fault?
As I mulled over this thought, I understood why it might be difficult to take the next step when dealing with the mentally ill. Indeed, our Loyola community was affected by gun violence and mental illness when Mary Marguerite-Kohn was killed by a mentally ill homeless man in May 2012. As social services are reduced due to budget cuts, the options for referrals are few, and mental health professionals are hard-pressed to work in a system with varying state laws, and a lack of public funding. The result is that response to serious mental illness in many cases has been retroactive at best.
Yet I live in hope that eventually, maybe when the debate about gun violence is spent, the focus would shift towards addressing adequate care for the mentally ill. The solution offered by the National Rifle Association executive vice president Wayne LaPierre on his recent appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press that “they need to be committed” could not possibly be the answer. As more citizens are exposed to gun violence, some are becoming traumatized, providing a new demographic of citizens with mental illness. Law makers should realize that mental illness is not a crime, and even when it may not be curable, it is treatable in the proper environment. It is time for them to respond to the mentally ill with adequate and appropriate treatment and care. This will be beneficial to both the patients and those whose paths they will cross.