I’ve been to a therapist twice in my life. The first time was 36 years ago when I was 20, and mourning the recent death of my father. The grief was heavy and unrelenting. It was the first time I’d experienced a loss of this nature, and I wasn’t prepared for its weight. The psychiatrist literally saved my life with his pragmatic, grandfatherly wisdom. And when I asked him for drugs to dull the pain, he wrote me a prescription for Bayer aspirin.
The second time was three years ago, when my mother died. The three decades of distance between my parents’ deaths hadn’t improved my ability to deal with intense mourning, and I found myself dissolving into sobs at odd moments, so I consulted with a psychologist who taught me how to breathe and find that still place within me.
And that’s it. I’ve never gone back for professional help, and have chosen to deal with my problems on my own. Clearly, I am not someone that could be classified as “mentally ill,” even though my contact with the mental health system would be of interest to the FBI if I were ever being vetted for a position with the federal government, and I have to disclose this information on some forms and applications for benefits.
I don’t mind. While there is still a stigma attached to anything related to mental health, it’s much better than it used to be when we warehoused people for what today would be diagnosed as depression. I have known and loved people, who have suffered from mental illness, and I hesitate to do anything that would perpetuate a stigma that was undeserved and caused untold, permanent damage to both the afflicted and their families.
But I also realize that ignoring the role that mental illness has played in the increasing and deadly incidents of gun violence is as damaging as our antiquated views of the disease, in all of its variations and degrees.
I came to this conclusion after Newtown, with the massacre of 7-year-olds still fresh in my mind. A few days after the massacre at Sandy Hook, I wrote a piece about the need for reform in Pennsylvania’s mental health laws, which make it nearly impossible to involuntarily commit someone. The pendulum had swung so far in the opposite direction, pushed with excessive force by the American Civil Liberties Union, to the extent that we now stigmatized those who pointed out the obvious mental impairments of people who needed help. Privacy and individual autonomy suddenly took precedence over health and safety.
Someone in Harrisburg read the column and asked me to testify before the state legislature on the need for mental health reforms. One of the other speakers was former District Attorney Seth Williams, who spoke about the nexus between mental illness and crime. I was glad to see him addressing the problem with clarity and frankness, not worrying about the politically correct buzzwords we are forced to use to avoid insulting the sensitive.
When Nicholas Cruz massacred 17 people in Florida last week, I thought back to my visit to Harrisburg in 2012. I remembered the words of Seth Williams, underlining the direct linkage between mental illness and violence. I compared this with the immediate and reflexive attempts on the part of today’s commentators to distance the mental health of Cruz with his homicidal acts.
It’s true that the vast majority of those who suffer from mental illness are not dangerous. But I also know that it’s wrong to ignore the thin but powerful thread connecting people with mental illness to a lack of impulse control, and the dangers created when they have unlimited access to weapons. Even though President Donald Trump was wrong to focus solely on mental illness in his tweets, he was right to point out that mental health and safety go hand in hand, particularly if that hand is holding an automatic weapon.
We Americans are extremely sensitive to our fundamental rights. But as Justice Scalia noted in the Heller decision, no right is absolute: “Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited… nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings.”
Mental illness should not be stigmatized. But neither should we ignore its role in the death of innocents.
Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer and columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. Readers may send her email at email@example.com.