In our opinion: Keep the issues of gun violence and untreated mental illness separate

Published: Monday, June 10 2013 12:29 p.m. MDT

The National Institute of Mental Health estimates 26 percent of adult Americans suffer from a diagnosable mental illness in any given year. Forty-six percent of kids, ages 13 to 18, will have experienced some form of mental illness during their lives.

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The issue of gun violence and the disparate issues surrounding untreated mental illness have found confluence in the wake of the Sandy Hook school shootings in Connecticut, even though they are problems that should be dealt with separately. The gravitational pull that has put them in tandem is a political contrivance, and it's time to break it apart.

The recent White House Conference on Mental Illness is a step in the right direction, but only a baby step. The conference intended to launch a national conversation on a problem that deserves more attention and prioritization. Too many cases of mental illness go undiagnosed and untreated, and that is a large societal problem regardless of how many of those cases lead to incidents of gun violence.

The National Institute of Mental Health estimates 26 percent of adult Americans suffer from a diagnosable mental illness in any given year. Forty-six percent of kids, ages 13 to 18, will have experienced some form of mental illness during their lives. Most are transitory conditions related to mood, anxiety or substance abuse. But the NIMH says 6 percent of the population suffers from a serious or chronic mental illness.

The Sandy Hook incident propelled a discussion of the issue because the shooter, Adam Lanza, is believed to have been among that 6 percent. It isn't known exactly what condition he may have suffered from, but in the aftermath of the shooting, the gun lobby sought to deflect the outcry for stricter firearms regulations by replacing it with an outcry for greater focus on mental health issues.

It is unfortunate the White House has taken the bait, staging its conference in the context of its response to the Sandy Hook shootings. To marry a much-needed discussion of health policy to the incendiary debate over gun control serves no rational purpose. Yes, there should be more effective ways to restrict people with a history of mental illness and a proclivity toward violence from accessing deadly weapons, but that is not where a national conversation about mental illness should begin and end.

It should begin with a frank and open discussion of the stigma that causes so many to ignore symptoms and shy away from seeking treatment. Tying that discussion to the issue of gun violence serves to perpetuate the stigma by inferring that people who suffer from a mental disorder are prone to acts of mass violence. Such an inference is inaccurate, unfair and totally counterproductive.

Yes, suicide is a big part of the problem and, yes, many suicides are committed with firearms. Keeping guns away from people with suicidal or homicidal tendencies makes sense, but the real problem here — as in the case of Adam Lanza — is that these people are not being detected soon enough, or offered help soon enough.

Continuing to talk about the two issues in tandem suggests a linkage that doesn't exist. Gun regulations will not result in better diagnosis or treatment of mental illness any more than better diagnosis and treatment will curb the proliferation of assault weapons.

Policymakers should go forward with proposals on both fronts, but along separate courses that recognize they are separate problems that demand separate solutions.

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