Here We Are Again: Guns and Mental Illness

It’s an ordinary school day. Kids and teachers go in and out of the office, phones ring. Then a young man with an assault weapon walks in.

That’s how “DeKalb Elementary,” an Oscar nominee based on a 2013 Georgia incident, begins. As I watched, I thought what a wonderful counselor the office worker would make at the crisis hotline where I consult. Remaining calm and empathetic to the gunman throughout, she defuses a dangerous situation without anyone being harmed.

The day after I saw the film, a young man with an AR-15 walked into a Florida high school and killed 17 people.

We cannot rely on words to stop guns any more than we can rely on armed “good guys.” I juxtapose the two events and my work with at-risk people not to apportion credit or blame, but to illustrate different facets of the debate about mental illness that invariably arises whenever these tragedies occur.

We absolutely need more funding for mental health. Yet what’s often proposed after mass shootings is counterproductive. Donald Trump suggests bringing back institutions to contain the threat. Less inflammatory mental health “solutions” aim to identify and remove “monstrous” people—not their guns–from circulation. Mental health professionals already must report those at imminent risk of hurting themselves or others. Stigmatizing mental illness and enlisting clinicians as wide-net detainers makes people less, not more, likely to seek treatment. Blaming gun violence on the mentally ill overlooks the fact that they account for a tiny fraction of gun homicides and are far more likely to be the victims rather than the perpetrators of violence. It also ignores the biggest threat: guns.

Two days after seeing “DeKalb Elementary,” and the day after the Parkland massacre, I consulted at the crisis hotline. I told the staff how much the film reminded me of them and the unsung, heroic work they do. Counselors listen, assess for risk, and, like the office worker in the film, connect calmly and empathetically to enlist that aspect of the person’s ambivalence that leans toward safety rather than destruction. Outside resources are utilized when there is imminent danger, but usually the internal resources of human connection and compassion are enough to defuse a volatile situation.

Mass shootings and the fear they evoke can cloud assessment and intervention.  Callers are often hostile, distraught, vaguely menacing. Violence is notoriously difficult to predict; thoughts, feelings, and fantasies are not the same as action. Parkland illustrates not only the importance of being vigilant about danger, but the vigilance of making sure we are not overreacting from anxiety to enact ineffectual preventive detention.

Mental health interventions are most effective early on. Guns in the picture indicate that the window for optimal engagement has already closed. A culture that promotes more guns as the solution, not the problem, suggests collective, not individual, pathology.

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This piece originally appeared in “Impulse,” an online publication of the Northern California Society for Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy

 

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