Jessie Close Speaks Out About Guns and Medical Records

Jessie Close responding to questions

      My friend, Jessie Close, contacted me Sunday to rant. She’d just watched Meet the Press and was angry.
    Many of you know Jessie because of her tireless advocacy and the blog that she writes weekly for BringChange2Mind, the anti-stigma group founded by award-winning actress Glenn Close.
     Glenn happens to be Jessie’s sister. It was Jessie who got Glenn interested mental illness. Jessie has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and her son, Calen, has schizophrenia.
    I suggested that Jessie turn her rant into words. Fortunately, she agreed and wrote a guest blog for me to share with you.
By  Jessie Close
     Every time I hear the words, ‘universal back ground check,’ I think I’m missing something. What exactly does that phrase mean?
    It sounds like it means a seller will be required to check my background before he sells me a gun. If my background doesn’t reveal any criminal doings, then the seller can go ahead with the transaction and I can take possession of a lethal weapon.
    But I was watching Meet the Press on NBC and was shocked to hear Mark Kelly, former Rep. Gabby Gifford’s astronaut husband, interpret ‘universal back ground check’ differently from what I had thought.
    That makes my blood boil.
    To start with, I don’t appreciate being lumped in with criminals simply because I have a medical condition that affects my brain. 
     But there’s another reason for my anger.
     If I decide to buy a gun, are we really going to allow Larry in his store, Guns For Us, to access my medical records and discover that I live with a mental illness? As far as I am concerned, good old Larry should never be allowed to access my medical records. My medical records are not and should not be seen by anyone except my doctors — unless I authorize it. 
     I am not a criminal; I have a medical condition and I take my medication. I was in the hospital 9 years ago and I check in with my doctor regularly.
     Yet because of the horrific shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, suddenly everyone with a mental issue is being viewed either as a criminal or a person who can’t be trusted.
    I don’t see how there can be background checks on persons with mentally illnesses without violating federal privacy laws that protect medical records. We live in a country where persons with mental disorders already are highly stigmatized. Voiding our rights to medical privacy will simply make things worse. What about the cop whose going through a divorce and gets depressed?    
     Medical privacy is essential and important. Mental illness should be invisible to anyone who tries to check into my private life unless I authorize it.
     Is that not true? How is it that these words ‘universal background check’ are being thrown around without any mention of medical privacy?  
    I am absolutely not defending anyone who has committed mass murder. If you think that, you’ve missed the point. We need to find ways to stop these killings before they happen. But requiring everyone who has ever suffered any sort of mental issue to reveal their medical records to gun shop owners and the public is not a reasonable solution. 
    I am a mother.  I live with a mental illness as does one of my sons.  Our medical records are private, as are yours.  My legal records, if I were to try purchasing a gun, are not private.  I was talking to a friend about this the other day and she mentioned that there was someone in her neighborhood who was mentally ill and had had a brush with the law.  That person will never be allowed to purchase a gun, she told me. In many states, you can’t buy a gun if you have been involuntarily committed to a mental hospital. Yes, if the court system and police become involved then I can see how your rights to own a gun can be restricted but does that mean you no longer have control of your medical records? 
    I have not had any brushes with the law nor have I been involuntarily committed. I have voluntarily checked myself into a hospital. Should that be grounds for restricting my right to buy a gun? Should my willingness to seek treatment void my rights to privacy? 
   I am like most mentally ill: it is more likely that I use the gun on myself than on others. I hear politicians throw around words like ‘universal background checks’ which sounds great until you really think about it.  Medical records should not be opened.  Instead of focusing on ways to expose someone’s illness why not come up with educational programs that help teach our young about mental illness?  How about making parents more responsible for the actions of their young?  I don’t understand parents who don’t know something serious is happening with their children; they’re possibly blind to their child’s behavior.  When my son was sick I knew something was wrong; his behavior was off the charts.  His dad finally got him into a hospital ward.  How can you not know that something is wrong?     
    I called my senator about the ‘universal background checks’ but haven’t heard back.  I’ll call again tomorrow and the next day until I hear what he has to say about medical privacy and mental health.
    I’d love to hear your ideas and opinions about ‘universal background checks’ for persons with mental illnesses.

 You can read Jessie’s other rants and raves at

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.


  1. Kimphillips123 says

    I was wondering the same thing. As someone who has Dysthymia all over my medical records, is he saying that I would make me more likely to commit murder than someone with, say, an anger management problem?

  2. Love this!!!
    I like how Jessie refers to her illness as “an illness that affects my brain,” which really helps to destigmatize neurobiological illnesses.
    And how would that work?  You are right, Jessie — Larry from “Guns Are Us” should not have access to private medical records.
    I will follow Jessie’s blog now. 
    Thanks for sharing.

  3. My understanding is that what is checked is if you have been commited by a judge to a mental hospital. So if you voluntarily were commited, that would not show up on a background check. This is how it is in Texas anyway. Medical records are not involved.

  4. Laura Pogliano says

    Jesse Close is completely right, and she’s a brave and honest woman to write this blog. First, the burgeoning creation of universal background checks allowing access to one’s medical records is more even more threatening than she’s indicating, unfortunately. HIPPA laws prevent a parent of a child over 18 who’s severely mentally ill from even making an doctor appointment to get help. You can bring your child to an ER or hospital and be allowed NO information at all, not his diagnosis, prognosis, medication, or the fact that he was released (after your probably very long struggle to get him there in the first place.) As an alternative, parents can spend thousands of dollars on lawyers to remove our children’s competency, only to have the legal system provide lawyers for them to pit them against us, and we lose at those hearings, in droves. But if I can’t have access to medical records without waivers that he’s supposed to be able to comprehend and sign while incompetent, then NO gun shop owner should have that right, ever. Second, the language in these bills is so vague that the outcome could amount to not only a horrible invasion of privacy, but also a ‘list’ or public tagging of anyone who is diagnosed. This won’t just increase stigma, it will increase violence against these patients. It will increase vigilantism. Third, all I can say as his parent about his right to own a weapon is this: I hope for his sake, even though he doesn’t have a history of legal involvement, violence, or self-harm, that he will never, ever be allowed to buy a gun. I wouldn’t give a small child a bottle of Drano and think, There’s a safety cap, hope he doesn’t get it open and drink it! It has nothing to do with his potential for criminality. It has to do with providing a sure means to harm himself and then hoping it doesn’t happen. That would be extremely irresponsible of me, in other circumstances.
    Fourth, I do agree wholeheartedly that parents deny mental illness in their children, and we have lots of help doing so. The disease in onset can fluctuate wildly between health and bizarre behavior, so you second guess what you’re even seeing. In my son’s case, his behavior was off the charts, and then–it wasn’t. We were at an MD, then a PHd the minute he made bizarre statements. The MD said, you’ve got a problem. But the therapist blamed my loose, hippie parenting: twice-weekly visits @ 150$ each, self-paid, for 5 months, only to hear I needed to create more boundaries. My son’s physical deterioration led me to force an inpatient stay, against that doctor’s advice. He said, verbatim: A hospital’s not a panacea for all bad behavior, Laura. Later, I collected those medical records; there it was in black and white: paranoia, delusions, hallucinations, psychosis. I asked, WHY!? Why did you not say the word ‘psychosis’ to me? I was here, in front of you, for months! I was interested and present and begging! I would have considered that a medical emergency and acted immediately! His excuse? Parents run out the door when they hear the word ‘psychosis,’ and all treatment stops. Parents won’t accept it. I said, My son has schizophrenia! Oh, he’d thought so, of course, very sorry to hear that…I told him he took away MY choice for an underage child. I would have made a better medical decision for him, and sooner, before he was catatonic. (In what other illness could a doctor under report such a drastic diagnosis, without being sued to the hilt for malpractice?) He wanted to know if I was writing a book, and how he could help that project. (He’ll be in the book, alright, in a chapter called The Charlatan Effect…)Thank you, Jessie Close, for bringing very critical points to bear on a tough discussion: universal background checks will invade medical privacy laws that are otherwise interpreted at their strictest level and impede care; and denial of illness is completely irresponsible, and comes from many sources: parents, educators, coaches, friends, and even doctors. Laura Pogliano

    • Amanda Lynn says

       Brava Laura! I am a “mental patient”. I am the forth generation of five generations with a diagnosed serious mental illness. My great grand mother and my great aunt lived the majority of their lives in a state institution.

      What I find most distressing is that commitment laws are so restrictive (as a reaction to past abuses in the treatment of the mentally ill). it becomes next to impossible to get someone into treatment against their will. Only if they are suicidal or homicidal can someone be committed. That plays out to the reality that even when someone is floridly psychotic—hearing voices and talking “word salad”, they cannot be committed against their will.

      You are right. We need early intervention! It will prevent the illness from progressing to the point of diminishing any possibility of securing a good work or academic history, It would prevent the collateral damage it does to family members and it would prevent the shattering of the patient’s self esteme and sense of worthiness. We desperatly need to make commitment laws less restrictive.

      The treatment of mental illness is astronomically expensive. It does bankrupt families. We need treatment on demand.from good qualified psychiatrists. I was 47 years old before I was accurately diagnosed!! That is a travesty. Although it is not helpful, too often I find myself asking what if I had been accurately diagnosed earlier? What if the right diagnosis and treatment had occurred when I was in high school? I knew something was very wrong back then. I even found a therapist who let me pay with my allowance. I didn’t need a therapist, I needed a good doctor!

      And of course stigma is a horrible obstacle. If you subscribe to the notion that we are as sick as our secrets, NOT disclosing your illness becomes an illness on top of the mental illnes. The result of disclosure too often results in loosing a job. A real catch 22

  5. Terri Wasilenko says

     Hi Jessie.
    New York State requires universal background checks on all fire arms (60% licensed dealers & 40% gun shows, newspaper ads, internet etc.)  The data base consists of criminal records and mental health records provided by federal and state courts. I am okay with convicted felons, people convicted of violent domestic crimes and those determined by the courts to be dangerously mentally ill to be prohibited from gaining access to guns.
    Now with that said, I become angry when hearing such statements as ‘criminals and the mentally ill should not have guns, they should be subject to background checks’. Lumping all individuals with mental health issues into this situation is unjust. My family member has major depression with psychotic features and is certainly not a killer. I want to protect his rights but at the same time acknowledge that there are individuals with untreated mental illness that should not have a gun in their hands.
    For my family it is not about the guns-it is all about the lack of access to mental health treatment/services that is the real problem! No one seems to want to solve the problem from that view point.

  6. Whoa! Please – everyone slow down!
    We are talking about policing ourselves. Productive societies have rules – like you have to be 16 to drive, and 21 to use alcohol. For a number of years, states have had it on the books that a person formerly court-ordered to a psych. center cannot buy a gun. Hardly anyone has complained! Until now! No one is looking at private medical records or proposing that they be open for gun shop owners. The proposal being reviewed is for psychiatrists to report those they feel have a very good chance of becoming violent. And for those, only, to be on a list. Is it proper for an ex-felon whose crimes were white collar, not violent, to be on the don’t sell to list? No, but they are. Is there perfection in any law of our land? No.
    First – if you’re concerned about stigma, and helping to eradicate it, you will jump at the opportunity to Share some of the stuff in your medical records.What if – the law-abiding mentally ill who desire a gun are given opportunity to present a M.D.’s statement that they are approved for buying a weapon? If you have epilepsy, you Have To prove to be without a seizure for X amount of time to have a drivers liscence. They’re not complaining! We’re talking safety!
    Please get with it. Hide from your co-workers, neighbors, gun store owners, and all your contacts that you live decently w/ a mental illness, and fear and stigma will continue. You will be helping it!
    Instead of universal checks or database, ( both intrusive), every person buying guns should have to prove their sound mind with a uniform gov’t run, clean-bill of-health check. Set up an agency just for that w/ shrinks and qualified professionals. If you pass you get your gun. No privacy invaded. Simple. The gun buyers pay for it. Creates new jobs. Protects all. Our military already does this w/ all new recruits
    Don’t wait for gov’t to spend money on school programs.
    You got the illness – get out there and educate! Volunteer to talk – anywhere! 
    Gun control is the least of concerns for the mentally ill.Mental illness is still a shame, taboo, a subject to change, an abhorrence to many. You need pride, courage, confidence and stamina, to put the fires of stigma out. Not guns.
    Get more concerned w/ better health care and your daily contributions to educating, compassionizing with those who stigmatize.
    A challenge for college educated mentally ill professionals : Develop and write a comprehensive mental health course for schoolchildren, complete w/ stigma-busting facts, submit it to the Dept. of Education.
    I hope that the smart money-powered mentally ill groups like NAMI and Bring change-2 will focus on the mentally ill as valuable people, and work to improve health care and community anti-stigma education. There are many recovered mentally ill living ordinary lives, working, raising children, with no voice, no big money to print brochures, and their gripe isn’t guns, but prejudice in the workplace, snide remarks at the water cooler, and teasing toward their children for having a ‘crazy’ parent. These are real issues, far more important than someone worrying about o-mi-god the gun dealer now knows my big awful secret. What secret? That we’re human? Have meds to take? ~~~ Get over it. Use your money and power to help the everyday mentally ill, struggling on forced limited income.
    often ostracicized, and victimized by mental health workers who treat them like a job objective.
    ‘Six decades of mental illness and long past smelling the coffee’… 

  7. Thank you Jessie for once again being the voice for many. I too have a mental illness, Borderline Personality Disorder, and am sooo grateful to you for choosing to voice that which many people think they cannot voice, their truth.
    God Bless you & your family and thanks again so much!

  8. Saying that parents don’t recognize or do anything about there young isn’t the reality in middle America. Parents are desperate to get help for their children, but fight doctors who just want to call everything ADD or whatever the diagnosis of the week, refusing to consider that the symptoms match those of already diagnosed family members who are being successfully treated.

    They fight having a teenager sign some stupid contract not to harm himself or others (as if a contract would stop a teenaged child in a psychotic state) and be released from the ER without so much as seeing a doctor, forget about a psychiatrist.

    They fight schools that refuse to create an IEP because the child’s symptoms are chronic, but not consistent so they keep putting off the meeting until it’s “too late in the year” or the child drops out of school. They deal with a legal system that a mentally ill teen can’t escape because the fines are too great and they can’t hold down a job and attend school and function.
    Parents of mentally compromised children, teens and young adults are blocked by HIPPA laws and beaurocrats at every turn. We’re promised support, but given nothing.

    Please don’t accuse us or stigmatize us for not being able to win against a system with more power and money and time than we could ever dream of. It’s not that we don’t fight with everything we have, we just don’t have enough.

  9. I resent being lumped in with criminals as well.  As if having a mental illness suddenly makes me willing to commit a crime!  I agree completely that education is the key.  And while I am at it…where are the mental health professionals?  Drs. educated the public about AIDS and Cancer and other diseases to reduce or eradicate stigma.  Why aren’t people with mental illness afforded the same courtesy?  And yes, I have been involuntarily committed and what of it?  At the time I was a danger to myself and should have been committed…shall we only target those who have been subjected to involuntary commitments?

  10. The problem is that a small minority of persons with psychotic disorders will become violent, but we currently cannot predict this very well.  Therefore, anyone with a psychiatric disorder is suspect for violent behavior. 

    What will allow us to predict violence much, much more accurately is genetic research that identifies a unique area of the brain that arises through a unique genetic/protein combination that foster a strong predisposition to violent behavior (homicide, suicide, etc.)  When this area is identified, a relatively small subset of persons with severe psychiatric disorders can be targeted for preventive treatment.

    If we want to identify such a brain area, then we must focus our research efforts in this area.

  11. KristenKringle says

    I’m glad there are patients and psychiatrists speaking out against this. Hopefully the news media, legislators, and public will listen.