Need to overhaul mental health services in the US

Nation must develop a multipronged approach to the gun problem.

By Sambhu N. Banik

Friday December 18th, 2012 is one of the saddest days in US history. A 20-year-old gunman killed 26 innocent people including 20 elementary school children at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

The shock wave was like 9 point Reichter Scalke earthquake which shook the entire world. President Barack Obama choked with tears when he addressed the nation about this tragedy. This is not the first time a gunman has used lethal weapons like assault rifle and other guns to kill students. Suing Hui Chu killed 32 persons in Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia; Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 13 people in Columbine High School in Colorado; George Hennard killed 23 people in Kileen, Texas; Patrick Sherrill killed 14 people in Edmond, Oklahoma; Howard Unruh killed 13 people in Camden ,New Jersey; Jiverly Wong killed 13 people in Binghampton, New York; James Huberty killed 21 people in San Sidro, California; James Holmes killed 12 people in a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado; Wade Michael Page killed seven people in a Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin; Charles Whitman killed 16 people in Austin, Texas and so on and on.

All of the killers used guns to kill people. As the massacre at Newtown involved 20 elementary school aged children, the pain and anguish are more pronounced. Obama is now ready to act to prevent such heinous mass killings by people who have mental health related issues. Who knows that out of the 20 students who lost their lives in Newtown one or two could have become the President of the USA, some astronauts, scientists, writers, fire chiefs, Nobel Laureates, doctors, physicists, Bill Gates, Steve Chases and so on. The loss is huge and this loss cannot be fully comprehended unless one is a parent, brother or sister or a close relative of one of the victims.

Who can comfort those parents who lost their sons and daughters to an individual who had serious emotional and mental health related problems? Lanza killed his own mother before he went on a rampage in Newtown.

It is time to seriously introspect how we as a nation can prevent this happening again. There is no easy answer to this problem as anger and aggression are instinctual in human beings, especially in men. This is evident from the list of the mass killers. Almost all of them are males.

Besides mental health screening and adequate availability of mental health services, there needs to be a coordinated effort to channelize aggressive and angry energy into constructive and non-violent activities. Besides gun control, especially of assault rifles, and better mental health screening and better treatment and counseling for the mentally ill individuals, we need to have well-coordinated educational system about the value and sanctity of lives.

Whenever a mass killing takes place, the immediate blame goes to the mentally ill. There is a great deal of ignorance and unsubstantiated belief that all mentally ill persons are dangerous. If one investigates all the gun related violence and killings in this country, they will find that many of the killings are committed by so called non-mentally ill persons. There is a very thin line between normalcy and abnormalcy. An individual can develop a temporary insanity in any day or any moment of his life depending on the type of stress and frustration he encounters.

Stress or frustrations can trigger aggressive instincts into a full blown mentally abnormal condition and can initiate a killing spree. An individual losing his job, being demoted, being punished or reprimanded, getting into an argument, getting a poor grade, being bullied, being ridiculed, being seen as a loser, being a failure in physical intimacy, can bring out violent behavior in the forefront.

Men are biologically more prone to be violent and many cultures encourage male violence and discourages female violence. An individual who is a loner, who has no friends, who thinks people are against him, or trying to harm him or he might have very low self-esteem, might feel very powerful and important by killing innocent people with the most lethal weapon, a gun.

In his warped mind, he may visualize getting headlines all over the world and make him famous or in the case of terrorists the martyrdoms and other special favors in heaven. These are delusional beliefs. There is widespread ignorance and misgivings about the mentally ill.

Not all mentally ill are prone to violence and not all individual with autism spectrum disorders are prone to be violent. Most of the violent crimes are committed by non-mentally ill persons, especially when alcohol and drugs are involved. Domestic violence is quite common among alcohol abusing individuals as well as individuals with dual diagnosis (mental illness and substance abuse).Also persons with antisocial and explosive personality who have poor frustration tolerance and poor control over their aggressive feelings and emotions.

To prevent or reduce the incidents of such mass violence, our nation must develop a multipronged approach to this problem. We need non-violence based educational approach for all children from the kindergarten to the college and university level. They must be taught individual differences in human beings and love and compassion for all living beings. The churches, the temples, the mosques, the synagogues and any religious organization must teach tolerance, non-violent means of conflict resolutions, and human dignity and respect for fellow human beings.

The Gandhian philosophy of non-violence, the philosophy of Swami Vivekananda, Martin Luther King,Jr,, the teachings of Gautam Buddha, the philosophy of Dalai Lama, the art of living principles of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, the moral and ethical building methods of Pramukh Swami Maharaj, the message of Joel Olstein, are all relevant to reduce incidents of violence in society.

We need to overhaul mental health services in this country. We need more stigma-less out patient facilities where one can seek help. We also need other health care professionals to be familiar with the diagnosis of violent prone individuals and provide necessary help and counseling to the individual, to the families and refer if necessary to psychiatrists and nurses and psychologists for further evaluation, proper treatment and therapy. Law enforcement officials must be trained to deal with mental illness and violent people as well as various methods to disarm them from suicides or homicides.

We also need a rational approach to teach children from their early ages about diversity in the world and how to develop tolerance and acceptance of an individual who is different either gender wise, or by nationality, ethnicity, religion, sexual preferences etc. Hate related crimes are mostly committed because of ignorance, stereotypes, and hatred for a particular group. Religious tolerance and acceptance are one of the key ingredients to reduce hate crimes. At present there is a long waiting list for mental health services and many do not seek help because of restrictions in reimbursement from insurance companies.

There should be laws against gun possession, except for law enforcement officials. Guns should be outlawed for all other purposes. If purchased for recreational purposes, the individuals who seek them, must be thoroughly investigated and verified about their mental status and proneness to any violence.

We can reduce violence but perhaps we will never be able to completely eradicate violence in human beings.

(Sambhu N. Banik, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology and Counseling, Bowie State University, and President, Banik and Associates, Family Diagnostic and Therapeutic Center)

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