Last Tuesday’s presidential debates have been scrutinized in microscopic detail. The Washington Post even published a front page story about each candidate’s body language. Yet none of the political pundits chastised President Obama for insulting one-in-five Americans. Not even the long-line of president-haters at Fox News.
What did the President say that was offensive?
“We have to…make sure that we’re keeping guns out of the hands of criminals, those who are mentally ill…”
A moment later he added:
“If we can get automatic weapons that kill folks in amazing numbers out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill.”
Substitute any other group except “the mentally ill” into the President’s two sentences.
“If we can get automatic weapons that kill folks in amazing numbers out of the hands of criminals and the Hispanics – blacks — gays.” You can even substitute the word Republicans.
The President’s reference smeared a lot of innocent Americans. According to a recent study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 45.9 million American adults experience a mental illness during any given year. Does President Obama believe these 45.9 million Americans pose an immediate threat to society?
Before my complaint is dismissed as nit-picking political correctness run amok, consider this: my adult son is one of those Americans. He has a severe mental disorder. I have witnessed first-hand how he has been stigmatized because of his diagnosis. He has been barred from certain jobs and turned away from employment opportunities, for which, he was well-qualified. Friends have distanced themselves from him. People whisper behind his back. Housing is tougher for him to find. Health insurance companies are wary. All because he developed a mood disorder during his twenties that psychiatrists’ claim is a biologically and genetically based illness that clearly is not his fault.
President Obama was referring to the recent shootings in an Aurora movie theater when he made his remarks. Murders by Jared Lee Loughner in Tucson and Seung-Hui Cho on the Virginia Tech campus have fueled the stereotype that “the mentally ill” are untrustworthy and dangerous. But those shooters are no more representative than the 9/11 bombers are of all Muslims. We shouldn’t condemn everyone because of violent acts by a few.
The majority of Americans diagnosed with mental disorders are not dangerous. They are more likely to be victims than to victimize. But some are clearly dangerous. Instead of typecasting all of them, Obama ought to be pushing harder for initiatives that can better protect the public by helping people recover.
Family, friends and college professors noticed odd behavior and were alarmed before the Tucson and Virginia Tech shootings. But misguided mental health laws that required a person to act dangerously before anyone could intervene and faulty mental health services failed to stop those killings. I suspect the same will prove true in Aurora.
Rather than reducing community mental health services through budget cuts, we need to support effective ones. The Lamp Community in Los Angeles’ skid row reduces homelessness by renting subsidized apartments to tenants even if they are not yet clean, sober or mentally stable. It helps people recover. Fountain House in Manhattan finds employment through job sharing for individuals whose mental disorders make it impossible for them to work at traditional forty hour per week jobs. It helps people recover. Safe housing, employment, access to meaningful medical care are proven recovery tools. They help people recover.
By redirecting funds from jails and prisons, and crisis-driven services, such as traditional homeless shelters and hospital emergency rooms, into supportive, permanent housing and evidence based treatment, we can invest up-front in initiatives that will result in savings over the long run. That is a far more rational and humane way of doing business than our current crisis-driven approach that sends people to costly hospital emergency rooms, overnight shelters and jails causing an unending growth in Medicaid, emergency budgets and corrections.
Sadly, the presidential debate fell victim to the same public discourse that always arises after tragedies such as those in Aurora, Tucson and at Virginia Tech. The focus immediately becomes gun control. It should be fixing our broken mental health system.