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Santa Barbara killings put mental health in the spotlight

Another prayer vigil for victims of a mass murder. When will we act? How many more?
Another prayer vigil for victims of a mass murder. When will we act? How many more?
Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

Friday night, one more gunman with hate and rage in his heart took the lives of innocent college students who, as far as we know, never did anything to him. The killer took the lives of six young people and wounded others. His bullets reopened the wounds of the survivors of previous shootings and stabbed the hearts of the families of gun violence victims everywhere.

One grieving father asked, “How many more must die? How many more?” Having lost a son myself, I feel his grief and sense of loss intensely, and I ask the same question.

We continue to suffer these horrific events for two reasons: we live in a culture that glorifies guns and tolerates violence in many forms; and as a society, we have failed in a colossal way to treat mental illness as an illness.

When we not only tolerate, but promote laws making it is legal for everyone to go everywhere with an automatic weapon on their hip and an assault rifle on their shoulder, why are we surprised when those weapons end up being used? When we push mental illness under the rug, stigmatize it, and fail to spend serious money treating it, why do we feign shock when the mentally ill act on their inner demons?

When we tolerate bullying, violence against gays, domestic violence, and violence against women, why are we surprised when the bullied seek revenge? Why are we shocked that women more likely to become victims of violence? When pointing a loaded assault rifle at a law enforcement officer executing a lawful court order in Nevada is called patriotic on Fox News and goes unpunished, what message are we sending?

After every mass murder, the NRA’s solution is simple: more guns, more people with guns, and allow guns everywhere. Yet, in every election, the NRA backs the candidates who vote consistently to cut funding for mental illness programs, and oppose new ones. If the NRA is to be believed on this issue, it needs to make funding of mental health as its most important issue for endorsement of candidates.

Every time something like this happens, we mourn but when the tears dry, the issue is kicked under the carpet. As horrific as these mass killing are, they are minuscule to the number of killings every by a gun. In some of these cases, mental illness is to blame.

We say we need to do something about it, but are we serious? Are we prepared to spend the amount of money required to treat mental illness properly, even if that means making billionaires and corporations pay their fair share of taxes? Are we prepared to pay somewhat higher taxes ourselves to put our money where our mouths are?

Society needs to come to grips with this: Most of the high profile killers who were mentally ill were able to buy guns legally because either they found a loophole in background check laws, or because they were not flagged in the system as a person who should not buy a gun.

In most cases, the police were never alerted about these killers beforehand, and in some cases, they were alerted but did nothing. Many who suffer with mental illness are experts at disguising their condition. Furthermore, laws prevent the police from searching the homes of people without probable cause, or holding them if they don’t see them as an immediate threat. Police officers are not psychiatrists. And, there are no beds available to treat them.

There is a trade off between an individual’s right of privacy and the safety of the public. Mental health professionals are reluctant to violate their patient’s privacy rights by notifying authorities. Authorities are reluctant to put mentally ill people on a list that would prevent them from buying guns or ammunition. One reason is fear of litigation. Another is a sincere belief that identifying a person as mentally ill only stigmatizes them, and could make their situation worse.

Until we attack violence by first insuring that people who should not own a gun, can’t get one, and second, by doing a better job identifying those who should not own a gun, and lastly, by treating mental illness like we treat cancer or heart disease, we will see more Santa Barbaras, more Virginia Techs, more Auroras, Columbines, and Sandy Hooks.

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