Feelings are strong about gun-mental health link

by T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol reporter

National Rifle Association head Wayne Lapierre was unsparing in his apparent depiction of severe mental illness.

“The truth is that our society is populated by an unknown number of genuine monsters — people so deranged, so evil, so possessed by voices and driven by demons that no sane person can possibly ever comprehend them,” Lapierre said in the wake of Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre.

National Alliance on Mental Illness Minnesota Executive Director Sue Abderholden appears before a House committee. (Photo by T.W. Budig)
National Alliance on Mental Illness Minnesota Executive Director Sue Abderholden appears before a House committee. (Photo by T.W. Budig)

Such language grates on the ears of National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Minnesota Executive Director Sue Abderholden.

“To target the folks with mental illness as part of this whole gun debate and violence, isn’t really appropriate,” said Abderholden, a veteran State Capitol operative and familiar figure in committee rooms.

“It further stigmatizes people,” she said.

The connection between mental illness — about one in four adults suffers from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year, it’s estimated. — and violence is a false connection, Abderholden argues.

Of all violent crime, just five percent is committed by people with mental illness.

“Unfortunately, that’s something we need to keep saying over and over again,” Abderholden said,

But do some lawmakers still draw a direct line?

“Oh, yeah,” Abderholden said.

NAMI finds itself confronting a double-edged sword, Abderholden explained.

While the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre casts a false light on mental illness, she explained, it has brought mental health initiatives to the forefront.

NAMI applauds Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton’s proposed mental health funding increases.

“Our top priority now is trying to get money into the children’s mental health system,”  said Abderholden, who has a wait-and-see attitude of a veteran lobbyist.

This money well-spent, Abderholden argues.

In terms of gun legislation, NAMI worries about the creation of registries and overly broad definitions.

These could place additional burden on individuals and families trying to cope with mental illness, they argue.

“Putting people into some kind of registry, or increasing the association with mental illnesses and violence makes people all the more hesitant to step forward (to seek help),” NAMI Criminal Justice Director Anna McLafferty said.

“They (parents) would be weighing, ‘Should I bring my kid in for treatment, because they might get into this registry?’”

“Parents should not have to weigh that,” McLafferty said.

In many cases years can go by between the onset of mental illness and someone getting treatment, she said.

And the longer the span, the poorer the treatment outcome, University of Minnesota Department of Psychiatry Chair Dr. Charles Schulz said in a legislative committee.

In part, this delay is attributable to the people suffering from mental illness keeping silent, he said.

“You can’t quite see it from the outside,” Schulz said of the workings of the mind.

But mental illness can also be “horrifying” for families, Schulz said.

He spoke of a parent who used to light a candle and pray by the bed of a child, hoping the voices the child was hearing would go away.

“That’s been a big problem,” Schulz said of the public’s lack of understanding of mental illness.

Tim Burkett, of People Inc., a metro-based mental health group, spoke of the “stigma” of mental illness.

Burkett, whose siblings suffered from mental illness, spoke in committee of families bearing a “scarlet letter.”

Others who have dealt with mental illness in the family look at the issue bluntly.

Former state representative Mindy Greiling of Roseville has a son with a form of schizophrenia.

Only a “small fraction” of people with mental illness are potentially dangerous, Greiling agrees.

Indeed, she’s glad her son never picked up on the family tradition of hunting –  not out of fear of violence to others but the risk of him committing suicide, she explained.

(The National Institute of Mental Health places the risk of violence among people with schizophrenia as small. But it notes schizophrenics attempt suicide much more often than others.)

However minimal, Greiling believes the risk of violence from people suffering from mental illness shouldn’t be dismissed.

“It shouldn’t be swept under the rug,” she said.

At the Legislature Greiling often spoke of her family’s dealings with mental illness.

She detests the usage of a certain catch-words in discussing the issue.

“I hate the ‘stigma’ word,” she said.

It generates a “poor me” mentality — a self-fulfilling prophecy of helplessness, she argued.

Instead, Greiling champions a forceful, on-going discussion.

That will bring mental illness out of the shadows as it did for the disabled decades ago, she said.

NAMI officials emphasize education.

“I think that educating the public on what are the signs that some one might be developing a mental health problem is incredibly important,” McLafferty said.

Most people don’t know “a heck of a lot” about it, she said.

People sometimes think it’s best not to say anything.

But approaching someone with a mental health problem is the same as with any other medical problem, she said.

“‘Hey, I’ve noticed this. And if you want to talk about it, I’m here,’” McLafferty styled the approach.

Symptoms of mental illness include feelings of sadness, confusion, the reduced ability to concentrate, excessive fears, sharp mood changes, withdrawal, tiredness, feelings of guilt, detachment from reality, suicidal thoughts, alcohol or drug abuse, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Treatment can be extremely effective, the NAMI officials note.

“An easy way to think about recovery is it is a home, a job, a date on Saturday night,” Abderholden said.

But Abderholden also compares mental illness to having diabetes or other long-term health issues.

Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, a health care professional and long-serving lawmaker, sees attitudes changing towards mental health.

“In the past, school mental health clinics would have been controversial,” he said, speaking after a recent committee hearing.

“Twenty years ago, there would be a bunch a conservatives here saying, ‘Not my child,’” Abeler said.

“And now you didn’t hear one ‘No.’” he said.

Dayton, speaking the day after a 9-year-old boy was killed in Oakdale by a shooter who opened fire on motorists, views the solution to violence as complex.

“Each time it happens it just so beyond the pale of horror,” Dayton said.

“I think we need more mental health services for children and young people. And my budget provides more of that,” he said.

“(But) it goes beyond that,” he said, noting the extensive media coverage shooting sprees garner.

“I always imagine somebody else sitting there somewhere (thinking), ‘Well, I can make headlines, too,’” he said.

Complex societal issues surround violence, Dayton indicated.

“They don’t lend themselves to single solutions,” he said.

Nor should they lend themselves to undeserved blame, NAMI officials argue.

“It’s a medical condition,” Abderholden said of mental illness.

“It’s discriminatory to focus on people’s mental illness,” she said.

“Focus on someone’s behavior, whether they were violent in the past — you can do that,” she said.

“Just to say, ‘mental illness’ makes no sense at all,” Abderholden said.

Tim Budig can be reached at [email protected]