speaking out on mental healthYesterday, President Obama unveiled his plan for gun control and improved mental health in this country, in response to the tragedy in Newtown.

I’ve seen a lot of chatter about mental health on Facebook and Twitter ever since the shooting. Many of those with mental illnesses like depression or anxiety have been concerned about all the talk about mental illness, worried about an increase in stigma, worried about the recommendation from the NRA that there be a national database of all the mentally ill, and the potential of the President’s plan to affect people’s privacy or take away their second amendment rights.

I was curious to see how our nation’s mental health organizations would respond. The National Alliance on Mental Illness applauded the president, but added, “NAMI supports fixing the existing federal background check system for gun purchases and emphasizes that this should include provisions to protect privacy and ensure that people will seek mental health treatment when needed.” Mental Health America supported the plan fully, without any concerns or mention of privacy issues or stigma.

While I agree with both NAMI and MHA that any movement forward to better identify youth with mental health problems is a great and wonderful thing, I was surprised they these organizations had little else to say to ensure that the wide audience of those with mental illness would, in addition to receiving better help, also be ensured protection, privacy and rights where appropriate. Leave it to the bloggers to actually delve into the issues:

Mental Illness, Tragedy & A Big Slippery Slope (Erika Krull – Psych Central)

Guns & Parity (Christine Stapleton – Psych Central)

New York Gun Control: Progress or A Mistake? (Tamara Hill – Psych Central)

Will Obama’s Newton Plan Fix Mental Healthcare? Don’t Believe the Hype (Katherine Stone – Babble)

Care Less Likely If Therapists Are Cops (Applebaum & Lieberman – New York Times)

I thought it interesting that no one really asked the consumer — those of us who have  or have had mental illness — what we think about what is happening. How we feel. What our concerns are. What we support.

Today, I asked the Warrior Moms. I think a dialogue is important, and I wanted to know how my readers are thinking about this, so I asked Postpartum Progress’ Facebook fans — an audience of mothers who’ve had or currently have a mental illness like postpartum depression — to share their thoughts. I asked the following questions:

  • How does it affect you when the NRA talks about a national mental health database?
  • How do you feel when the President’s plan states, “share relevant information on people prohibited from gun ownership for mental health reasons.” Do you worry about where they will draw the line in terms of who can or cannot have a gun based on what kind of mental illness they have?
  • How has all this talk affected you, if at all?

Here is some of what they said:

I do worry about this. It should be based on a case-by-case basis. You can’t lump mental illness into one big statistic because the severity of it varies from person to person. I’m an avid, responsible gun owner who also suffers from PPD. However, I’ve always been aware of my condition and am taking the proper steps to manage it. This is part of being a responsible gun owner, being responsible for yourself! ~ Stacey W.

I am curious to see if any clear definitions … come out or whether it will be left up to each individual therapist’s judgment of whether to report a patient. ~ Desiree J.

My one big hangup with this plan is that it doesn’t take into account the individuals who suffer from serious undiagnosed mental health issues. The people who don’t seek help, they will not be in any database. I still don’t understand how this is even being discussed. I’m against gun ownership, but let’s say I wanted to purchase a firearm. A person could just look me up, see that I was treated for PPD and depression and deny me a firearm? But my neighbor down the street, with some type of serious undiagnosed psychosis could purchase one? ~ Nesie S.

I am actually not bothered by this idea at all. There are lots of lists out there that are only searchable by people on a need-to-know basis and I think this list would easily qualify – it’s health information after all. I think more transparency would actually help lessen the stigma, not enforce it, although I see how the whole sex-offender thing has played out [in terms of] how a public list could really go wrong. But put me on a list if it increases awareness of mental illness and promotes treatment for all. ~ Kristin M.

There is no need for a national mental health database. It would definitely create a barrier to seeking treatment, and to providing effective treatment. As a mental health care provider, I already have a legal and ethical “duty to warn” if a client is a threat to himself/herself or to others. I am mandated by law (see Tarasoff v. the regents of the University of California) to protect the threatened individual, group, or the general public as indicated. Two things to remember when we talk about “mental illness.” 1) It is socially constructed. It does not naturally exist. It is dependent upon social interactions in our society/culture. 2) Mental illness is a broad, and vague, phrase. To say “the mentally ill” is, in my opinion, offensive. People who may struggle with issues of mental health are first and foremost “people.” No two people experience any one issue in exactly the same manner. We cannot make broad generalizations such as “People with schizophrenia are dangerous.” ~ Beth A.

I’d say anyone who uses a gun in anger or to show power is having a mental crises, whether diagnosed or not. So, to say that tracking the mentally ill will solve gun issues is false. It’s that ANYONE can get a gun. It’s that guns are now made to kill so many so quickly and gun makers have skirted past bans by calling these horrible weapons sport rifles instead of assault weapons. Second, mental health issues are complex. They manifest different for each person. My anxiety manifests as anger. My friend’s anxiety may manifest as avoidance of social situations. How in the world are we going to decide which people with mental issues are prone to violence? And yes, I am scared this would lead to me losing my job as a teacher. My mental health history is as much my private business as my physical health is. ~ Stephanie R.

It all sounds like a bunch of useless rhetoric to me. How do you define ‘mental illness’? How do you define the mental illnesses that will cause you to be denied because some have nothing to do with violence or instability and almost all exist on a wide spectrum in terms of severity? ~ Britni V.

I want to know who will have access to my mental health records, and how much information will be shared. Is Joe Schmoe behind the counter, running the [background] checks, going to know about my hospital stay? Or what medicines I take? What’s to stop him from telling anybody and everybody my history? Does this not violate a privacy act? And will they take into account any progress that’s been made with treatment? I feel defensive and alienated when people discuss this topic because I do have a mental illness, yet I own 3 guns and have never once had the desire to injure a human being. ~ Megan A.

Not all people that suffer from mental illness are a danger to themselves and others, but some are, and those that are a serious threat to themselves and others should not be allowed to purchase a gun. ~ Kerry J.

I just read the plan and I was impressed! I also learned a few things. 1. Right now the CDC can’t do any research on gun crimes. Congress does not want facts to get in the way of agenda I guess? Also, doctors can’t ask people who they might deem a risk about any guns that they own. Weird. I don’t see how any sensible person could argue with what the president is asking for. ~ Kohni G.

I think this may prevent folks from seeking help. Which is more dangerous? ~ J.C.

There are all different levels of mental health and to lump them all together is unfair. Unlike a medical illness, there is not a blood test that can tell you what mental illness you have. And a lot of people with mental illnesses are not honest about them. (I for one was not.) I guess what I am trying to say is people will be able to hide/lie about their mental state and never be put into the “database.” ~ Emily C.

I don’t think they are looking to ban all persons from gun ownership just because of a little depression, anxiety, etc. The government is trying to make it harder for the seriously mentally ill to purchase a weapon. For example, if you have been “committed” voluntarily or not, you should not be able to purchase weapons or ammo period. Same as if (as the law stands now) you can’t have any prior felonies and still purchase a gun! ~ Melody C.

Some people who have perpetrated these horrific newsworthy crimes got the weapons from others, so they wouldn’t have been checked anyway. I think we are focusing on the wrong thing. Not who should get guns, but why is it so easy for anyone to get them? Why aren’t we closing the gun show loophole? Why do we need hunting rifles that fire so many shots in a row? ~ Stephanie R.

All this “mental health background check” talk not only has me worried, but angry. More government intrusion into people’s health histories is disturbing. Like many moms who have struggled with postpartum depression and postpartum anxiety, I’ve worked very hard to be well and healthy. Although I was very sick a few years ago, that’s not where I am anymore. I am whole, balanced, hopeful and at peace. Why should my history determine my future? Why should my past health change how the Constitution applies to me, and what stranger gets to make that decision? ~ Dawn W.

Building a national database, reducing HIPA requirements so that doctors can report is scary and can be an absolute violations of rights. We need to find the best way to treat mental health issues and take reported incidents seriously without violating the public’s basic rights. What I see happening is twofold: 1) people resisting treatment even more. 2) doctors reporting more people than necessary due to intense public and political pressure to not end up being the doctor treating the next person who shot up a mall, school or movie theater. Both are scary and both do nothing to serve the best interest of the patient or the public. ~ Stephanie N.

Government agencies do not have a good track record of accurate record keeping or knowing where to draw the line between privacy/rights and security. Lumping all mental health issues into one category (i.e. “suspicious”) is wrong and sets up an “us versus them” mentality that neither helps people with mental illnesses nor prevents tragic violence. ~ Lindsey T.

… This “list” would only have folks who have sought treatment for their mental illness – many of us know that those who have sought help have gotten better. For those who delay seeking help, it generally takes longer to get better. In general, the folks committing these violent acts are the ones that have not sought help – they’re not going to be on the list. It discourages folks from seeking help, exactly what we don’t need to be doing. ~ Laura R. Editor’s note: I would add either they haven’t sought help or they have sought it but haven’t received any, or not any that was effective enough to do any good.

When my PPD/psychosis hit, I became obsessed with doomsday prepping. I headed out to the grocery store one afternoon and made a stop on the way. The local gun shop. I purchased a rifle and filled out the necessary paperwork. Of course, at the time, my thought was to have the gun for protection for my family. That is also what I conveyed to the man who sold me the gun. He had no way of knowing that I would end up hospitalized a week later with full blown delusions and suicidal intentions. Luckily, my husband saw my mental decline and gave his parents the gun for safe keeping. It’s a good thing because I don’t think anyone in my home was safe with it here. I have no idea how to regulate this. One can purchase a gun and be fine then have a mental breakdown a month later. ~ J.

I think fear of being put on a national database will cause the people who need the most help to avoid seeking it out of fear of being permanently “labeled.” We need to remember that statistics do not bear out our notions that mentally ill people commit more violent crimes. People with mental illness are far more likely to be victims of violent crime than perpetrators of it. These laws are based on perceptions and stigma rather than reality. ~ Susan K.

.I am skeptical that more laws are going to prevent tragedy. People will just find other ways to do harm. I think the bigger focus needs to be on health care specifically mental health. PPD suffers have been silent for far too long, among other forms of depression. I was one who went undiagnosed until it was too late. I was silent because I was scared of being labeled. Scared of being looked down on. ~ Tami R.

I think it is a good idea. As long as the laws are clear about what defines a mental illness, what kinds if mental illness are more risky, and when a person can be cleared of that status, I think it’s good. I worked in the mental health field as well as suffered from severe PPD and I have seen first hand how a person not in control of their actions can harm people. Just like if someone who was having an epileptic seizure is holding a gun, you would remove it from them so they don’t hurt someone, I would hope the same would be true of someone suffering from delusions and hallucinations. ~ Hannah K.

This gun initiative is the tail wagging the dog, and it frustrates me to no end. If half of the resources that have been used in the last week to talk about guns were refocused on to mental health, we would make real and actual progress in our communities, and would likely reduce gun violence. But instead, mental health is a line item in broader edict and will therefore continue to suffer from the lack of attention it really needs. ~ Amy Q.
I find gun laws to be the issue needing legislation and mental health issues to be the ones needing support/research/funding. ~ Alyssa R.
Mental illness is NOT a crime. It is hard enough to admit and accept you need help without feeling like you’re a criminal for seeking help. ~ Laura R.

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