Having spent more than 25 years working in and with the mental health system in
Georgia advocating for increased, better, and different services in that state and
beyond, some of the conclusions being drawn following the Newtown, Connecticut
shootings are concerning.
The December 30 Chattanooga Times/Free Press contained several articles,
commentaries, and opinions suggesting the root problem in this tragedy was that
the shooter had a mental illness; ignoring the fact that the mentally ill shooter also
had access to multiple, high-powered, military-grade firearms.
A political cartoon on the Free Press side of the Opinion section that morning
depicted a youth with a smoking gun with “EVIL” written on his back. The title of
the piece was “The Root of Evil” and depicted as “roots” such things as “Exposure to
Violence” and “Decaying Morality” along with “Unearned Fame” and “Lack of Social
Contact”; all of which could well be true. What was particularly concerning was
that, along with these social issues, many of which are “rooted” in lack of intentional
parenting and transferring of morals to children, was “Mental Illness”.
Mental illnesses are, almost exclusively, no-fault diseases that affect our brains
(another organ of the body); diseases no different than cancer, diabetes, or heart
disease. Any of these diseases, left untreated, can have devastating consequences
to the person affected. The truth is that people with severe and persistent mental
illnesses are far more likely to be a VICTIM of crime than a perpetrator. They are
more likely to be homeless, poor, and sick with other physical ailments due to their
inability to care for themselves properly. To equate mental illnesses with moral
decay or dissolution of the family ignores the facts and stigmatizes those who have a
mental illness; most of whom lead quiet and productive lives amongst us every day.
Mental illness is certainly not a “root” of evil, no more than any other disease.
The good news is that medications, programs, and rehabilitation services that are
effective do exist for those affected; albeit not at the levels that are needed. If we
are going to recognize mental illness as a factor in this horrific event and crime we
must further recognize and reverse the societal cost of decreased funding for mental
health services. When budgets are tight, mental health services are almost always
among the first on the chopping block because of a lack of a powerful constituency
pushing against those cuts. While governing is about priorities, sadly, it is those
without a voice (in the form of lots of political action dollars to spread around) that
are most often judged to be a “lower” priority.
In assessing the root cause of this tragedy, it is entirely appropriate to discuss the
various evils depicted in the cartoon, though in the case of mental illness, the sad
truth is that our citizens have not demanded that policymakers help create as a high
priority a mental healthcare framework that remotely meets societal needs.
Perhaps the only good that can come of this senseless tragedy will be an honest
conversation around the social and societal impact of turning our backs on the
compelling need for stronger investment in mental health services. Hopefully, we
won’t as a society fall into the trap of further stigmatizing those who struggle and
mostly succeed every day with mental health issues.
John T. Dixon, MS, CPRP
Chair, Georgia Chapter of the United States Psychiatric Rehabilitation Association