Over the last two decades, I have worked as a mental health advocate both inside and outside government. In my entire career, I have never witnessed the kind of scapegoating and name calling that is going on involving people with mental illness and the gun control debate. For many in the public, equating violence with mental illness has become a normalized response. We are better than that. On the eve of the State budget and on the beginning of our legislative session, we have laid out some actionable steps that New York can utilize to help stem this tide of discrimination and stigma.

WE ARE TIRED OF PEOPLE WITH MENTAL ILLNESS ONLY BEING PART OF PUBLIC POLICY DISCUSSIONS WHEN IT INVOLVES VIOLENCE

Why is it that every time the gun control debate is discussed–there is a completely inappropriate and unwarranted focus on people with mental illness? People with mental illness are no more violent than the general population. We have the numbers. We have statistically sound data and science to back this up. Everyone knows this; nobody claims we’re making this up. Yet no matter how blue in the face we get about raising the false issue, why have people with mental illness become the foils of the gun control debate?

Why are risk factors like history of domestic violence, family conflict, history of violent behavior, substance abuse, and family history of abuse not put first and foremost in the discussion? Those are much more predictive of gun violence than mental illness.

None of us are blind to realities. We understand that if you have a history of violence that is also concurrent with a mental illness, you should not own a gun, but to broad brush a whole population of people is akin to saying that all people who have diabetes should not have drivers licenses because they could go into a coma shock while driving.

Some people say that it’s not the guns. They argue that if we outlawed people with mental illness from owning guns, there would be many less people who would die from gun violence. Yet, while it makes for a nice sound bite, there is no evidence to back that up. It is a lazy scapegoating technique. Where you stand on gun control is a personal issue, but you cannot generalize about a whole population of people.

Actionable Steps That Will Help End the Stigma of Mental Illness

What can we do? What we need is actionable steps that will make difference in people’s live for years to come. We need a culture change.

We are trying to do that in New York. We have a first in the nation tax check off specifically geared to ending the stigma of mental illness. This is significant landmark legislation and an acknowledgement from the State about the importance of issues of stigma and discrimination.

Next, we have to go after the people we need most to buy in to changing perceptions of what mental illness is—-our youth. At the Mental Health Association, we have made it our top legislative priority to fight for required education about mental health in schools. Is there any other issue more worthy about being taught in school than mental health? The answer is no. Our youth are faced every day with increased risk of depression, suicide risks, high levels of anxiety and much more. To sit there on the sidelines and not provide education to youth, is to create another generation that will have limited understanding of mental illness and continue to rely on mythology and skewered perceptions.

In New York, we also have to have additional funding for Mental Health First Aid. Mental Health First Aid is an eight hour  evidence based training that provides basic knowledge of how the general population can respond to a mental health crisis but it also provides the training tools and curriculums that helps to dramatically decrease the stigma of mental illness. The great part about Mental Health First Aid is it is for everyone. We are all impacted directly or indirectly by mental illness and instead of running and hiding or creating false perceptions, Mental Health First Aid does just the opposite and shatter those myths.

Specifically when it comes to services, can we please pay our not for profit workforce appropriately? Year after year, we are faced with a system of care that is underfunded and over saturated with long waiting list of people having to wait months for appointments and sometimes years for housing. We have to pay community based mental health organizations equitably. Why would we ignore the people who provide the best and most cost effective services? It makes no sense economically or compassionately.

At the end of the day, we are all impacted  by mental illness. Scapegoating just marginalizes a large number of people in society The end result is reduced services and enhanced stigma. We have the ability to stem the tide in New York, we just need the will.

 

Glenn Liebman, CEO

Translate »