Boom. Kaboom. Bang. Shots ring out in our schools, shopping malls, streets, and we believe we are powerless to stop it. Responding to the chaos, police around the U.S. end up shooting mentally ill individuals because the police don’t know of any other way to interact with them — to calm the storm of symptoms. Enraged and scared, citizens yell for gun control, arming children, armed guards in schools, return to religion — anything to save a child, anything to stop the madness.
But is that the way? What if we looked closer at the idea of expanding mental health services? What if we treat the “madness?” rather than fear it? Obama has not just been calling for gun control (though his other messages are getting lost in media soundbites). Obama is also calling for mental health treatment — for helping people and stopping violence before it starts. If we have more counselors and resources in schools, if more people have access to services in the communities, then maybe … maybe that next shooting won’t happen.
I work at a community mental health facility most known for serving those who suffer from the most acute mental illnesses in Seattle. My clients are not scary. They are not overwhelming. They are not the throw-a-ways in our society that people think. They are people who have often gone through traumatic events that would break and shatter the best of us. They are people who were given the worst lots in life. But the takeaway is that they are people.
Yes, some clients will have psychiatric symptoms that make me worry they may get violent, but because they can access our services, and because I meet with them regularly, I can assess these issues, and I can recommend treatment. My clients can go to the hospital for as little as three days, and often reach a point that they return to stability. If they do not, they can be hospitalized longer. The point is, the mental health system acts like a net, like a safety valve — we catch things before they go too far—without the need for more guns in society and more possibilities of violence because of those guns.
The Affordable Care Act (known as Obamacare) is preparing to cast a larger net — people not hitherto insured for mental health care coverage will now be. It will be interesting to see how that changes the scene, and how treatment of the diseases rather than the symptoms helps society at large. Please consider that when you think of Obamacare next, and argue about its merits with friends. These are real people who should be treated with respect and dignity and offered the treatment they deserve and need. Anything else damages our country as a whole and leads to further tragedy.
JanRose Ottaway Martin