On Gun Control And Mental Illness And Learning To Talk With Each Other

I write. It’s what I do. While others might turn to prayer or exercise or sedatives as a coping mechanism, I lean on words. And beer. Words and beer. Oh, and pizza. Words and beer and pizza.

So when I read the horrific accounts of the carnage in Newtown, Conn., I felt the need to write. About gun violence. About mental health. About this country’s maddening, aggravating, excruciating inability to have meaningful discussions.

Like on gun control. Seemingly within minutes of the massacre, some seized it as an opening to renew calls for the banning of all guns. Moments later, others began criticizing those people as shameless opportunists. We didn’t even know the names of the 6-year-olds who had been murdered and we already had been reduced to shouting at each other.

In the past two days — I’m writing this about 40 hours after the carnage began — I have heard no less than four talk-radio hosts blast gun-control advocates for somehow being virulently un-American. That is, when they weren’t advocating for the arming of teachers.

OK, so maybe it’s not the right time to discuss gun control. Maybe meaningful discussions shouldn’t be held under the duress of the most raw and most painful emotions. Then when? When is the right time? We couldn’t talk after Columbine. We couldn’t talk after Virginia Tech. We couldn’t talk after Aurora. So when is the right time? Tell me and I’ll be there.

Hell, if we had bridges collapsing and killing 32 people in Virginia, then 12 people in Colorado, then 27 people in Connecticut, we would expect our leaders to do something about bridges, wouldn’t we? If we had airplanes falling out of the sky, we would expect some investigation and regulation of airplanes, wouldn’t we? We would expect Congress to try to limit the possibility of it happening again, right?

But gun control, for some inexplicable reason, cannot even get on the docket. Look, there’s some middle ground here. I’m not for the banning of handguns. I understand the Second Amendment. I know that guns are part of our culture, for better and for worse. But how about semi-automatic assault rifles? Can we start with that? Can somebody please explain why we need the right to own semi-automatic assault rifles? I’m willing to listen. I’m willing to talk. I just want us to be able to have a discussion.

But I didn’t come here to talk about gun control. I came to talk about mental health (obscure reference: I feel like Arlo Guthrie. Leave a comment if you get that one).

Let’s start with this. It’s a blog post from the mother of a 13-year-old mentally ill boy. He’s not developmentally disabled; he’s not unable to learn; he’s just wired slightly wrong, and it scares the hell out of his mother. It scares the hell out of me. And it should be required reading for everybody who is interested in having a meaningful discussion about mental health care. Read it . . . go ahead . . . I’ll wait . . .

OK, can we talk now?

See, I’ve seen mental illness up close, through a family member. It’s difficult. It’s painful. It’s impossible to deal with. When the person I know is not on their medication, there is no reasoning with them. They are paranoid and delusional, and I can’t count the number of times I have given thanks that they didn’t have access to a gun. When they are taking care of themselves, they are funny and bright and extremely intelligent. Frustratingly intelligent if you ever try to argue with them. They can deal with the world and even thrive in it; they just need a little help.

There is a stigma about mental illness in this country, and it’s time we got past that. We don’t shun somebody who has a heart attack and requires heart medication. We offer empathy and wish them well in dealing with their illness. Mental illness is no different. It’s usually a chemical imbalance that is treatable.

As the blog post mentioned above states, “When I asked my son’s social worker about my options, he said that the only thing I could do was to get Michael charged with a crime. ‘If he’s back in the system, they’ll create a paper trail,’ he said. ‘That’s the only way you’re ever going to get anything done. No one will pay attention to you unless you’ve got charges.’ “

That is tragic. I can’t imagine hearing that about your 13-year-old son, about somebody you love, about somebody who needs help, not incarceration. Our nation’s current method of dealing with mental illness is to limit access to care until the person finds themselves in a desperate downward cycle. It’s shameful.

And it is something that must, absolutely must, go hand in hand with any discussion about gun control. We could go to the extreme and ban all guns (I’m not advocating that; I’m mocking it). Think that will help? Think that will eliminate guns in this country? Think Adam Lanza could have been stopped by a law banning guns? He didn’t seem to mind murdering 6-year-olds; I don’t think he would have worried about breaking the law regarding gun possession. (And don’t get me started on the wisdom of a woman with a mentally ill son having a cache of guns in her house).

The point is that you can’t reason with somebody who is that severely deranged. Millions upon millions of people suffer from a personality order similar to Lanza; most of them, fortunately, don’t view shooting up a school as a viable outlet.

The stories out of Newtown are beyond comprehension, and they always will be. It’s human nature to search for reasons, to search for triggers, to search for logic that provides some sort of explanation. But we’ll never find them. You can’t reason with crazy. You just can’t.

That is the frustration, and that is the reason we need to talk. It’s not so we can somehow make sense the monster; it’s so we can prevent the next one from shattering our world. That is the reason I feel compelled to write. But I’m also willing to listen.

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