Letter: Scapegoating mental illness

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Editor of the Reformer,

We have been active in mental health communities in Texas and Vermont for nearly a decade after a crisis that could have taken our daughter's life. What we've encountered are dedicated, supportive, mostly volunteer networks of people who cope with often overwhelming circumstances and advocate tirelessly for de-stigmatization of mental illness. That's why it's so disheartening to hear public discourse after mass shootings invariably default to mental illness.

According to 2017 statistics from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, one in five American adults experiences a mental health issue; one in 10 young people experiences a period of major depression; and a quarter of Americans have lived with a serious mental illness. And yet, given this vast pool of people affected by mental illness, only 3 to 5 percent of violent acts can be attributed to those living with serious mental illness, who are actually 10 times more likely to be crime victims than the general population.

Scapegoating mental illness after these horrendous shootings is the easy road for politicians and pundits to take for several reasons. First, no campaign donations are on the line because mental health advocacy groups are chronically underfunded and typically apolitical. Second, mental illness is a nebulous, intractable problem that doesn't evoke impassioned responses that could jeopardize votes. By contrast, a concrete problem such as availability of assault weapons immediately galvanizes supporters and opponents into action. Finally, lawmakers have learned that after a few days of frantic sound and fury, our short national attention span will shift to the next crisis or shiny-object scandal.

Effective management of mental illness requires a national commitment to early intervention that addresses the fact that less than 20 percent of children and adolescents with diagnosable mental health problems receive adequate care. Everyone in need must have access to affordable treatment options and consistent follow-up care. Instead, the post-shooting conversation turns to red flag laws intended to disarm individuals who now pose a danger to themselves or others, likely because they didn't have access to adequate, timely treatment.

Continuing to use mental illness as a diversion from measures that could effectively reduce or prevent mass shootings virtually ensures two undesirable outcomes: the slaughter will continue, and the stigma that discourages people from seeking mental health treatment will be reinforced. This is not our fate; it's our choice. Rather than vilify those coping with mental illness, let's support them and their families and advocates with our voices and votes.

Phil and Lesley Blackburn

Brattleboro, August 8



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