We Can’t Find the Next Adam Lanza

Why we need to stop linking mental illness to gun violence.

This past week, before yesterday’s shameless display of ideological stonewalling cast a cloud of senselessness over the U.S. Senate, the New York Times ran an optimistic headline: “In Gun Debate, No Rift on Better Care for Mentally Ill.”

Senators of all political stripes, they wrote, were coming together to draft a piece of legislation aimed squarely at improving the quality and accessibility of mental health care in America. It’s a long-overdue effort that offers hope to an under-staffed and under-funded sector of health care that’s typically an afterthought when we think about our health-care system as a whole. Like yesterday’s doomed gun control legislation, Sandy Hook was the driving impetus for the new efforts; after that trauma last winter, both NRA enthusiasts and control proponents alike have agreed that the risks of not improving our mental health-care system are too high.

What exactly those risks are, however, has become a point of contention for mental health advocates, who have been hesitant to devour their newfound public support too greedily.

Linda Rosenberg, the president of the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare, told the Times, “This is our moment. I hate the connection between gun violence and the need for better mental health care, but sometimes you have to take what you can get.”

The Times hardly disproved her point two paragraphs later: “A major reason proponents of this legislation see it as so significant is that unlike background checks or weapons bans, properly treating mental illness can prevent problems before a potential killer tries to buy a gun.”

In one, breath “mental illness” and “potential killer,” locked together as twin studies in understanding and curbing violence. In the public eye, the dots have connected; suddenly mental health-care reform is less an effort in improving the lives of mentally ill citizens than it is a means of protecting ourselves against undiagnosed murderers.

Mental health experts have seen this dangerous intertwining solidifying in our discourse since Sandy Hook. To make sense of the tragedy, we probed Lanza’s cryptic biography for ignored red flags and missed diagnoses. Putting a clinical label on the mass murderer could put some distance between him and us, while also offering some hope—a diagnosis meant symptoms, which meant this kind of person could be targeted and stopped.

This past January, almost exactly a month after the Newtown shooting, Philly Post contributor Liz Spikol wrote about a recent gun control law in New York that included a section requiring mental health professionals to report patients who were expressing violent urges toward themselves or others, which has basically nothing to do with guns: “This is just one bill in one state, but it’s a sign of things to come,” she wrote. “From pundit to politician, if they say ‘guns’ in one breath, you can be sure they’ll say, ‘mental health’ in the next. That’s a spurious connection, and one we have to guard against.”

The blue-sky truth, of course, is that the overwhelming majority of mentally ill people are completely non-violent. Even if there were a discernible link between psychiatric diagnoses and violence, most professionals say that pinpointing which patient might be the next Lanza is next to impossible. Senselessness and inexplicability are often the most common denominators of such heinous acts.

New legislation may include more community mental health centers, suicide prevention initiatives, and funding for training teachers to look for early signs of mental illness.They’re initiatives that are fundamentally about treating the mentally ill the same way we would any other citizens—providing fair and open pathways toward work, housing and adequate health care, no matter what the illness. But to do so only as a precautionary measure is to perpetuate exactly the ostracizing attitudes toward the mentally we should be well past.

Liz cited in a study in her post over the winter that found that just four percent of violent crimes committed in America were perpetrated by the mentally ill. Another study by the British Medical Journal found that people with mental illnesses are, in fact, five times more likely to be murder victims themselves. The vast majority of homicides, just about everyone has found, are committed with guns.