Feelings strong about mental health, firearms

by T.W. Budig

ECM Capitol reporter

National Rifle Association head Wayne Lapierre was unsparing in his apparent depiction of severe mental illness.

“The truth is that our society is populated by an unknown number of genuine monsters — people so deranged, so evil, so possessed by voices and driven by demons that no sane person can possibly ever comprehend them,” Lapierre said in the wake of Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre.

Such language grates on the ears of National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Minnesota Executive Director Sue Abderholden.

“To target the folks with mental illness as part of this whole gun debate and violence isn’t really appropriate,” said Abderholden, a veteran State Capitol operative and familiar figure in committee rooms.

“It further stigmatizes people,” she said.

The connection between mental illness — about one in four adults suffers from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year, it’s estimated. — and violence is a false connection, Abderholden argues.

Of all violent crime, just 5 percent is committed by people with mental illness.

“Unfortunately, that’s something we need to keep saying over and over again,” Abderholden said,

But do some lawmakers still draw a direct line?

“Oh, yeah,” Abderholden said.

NAMI finds itself confronting a double-edged sword, Abderholden explained.

While the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre casts a false light on mental illness, she explained, it has brought mental health initiatives to the forefront.

NAMI applauds Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton’s proposed mental health funding increases.

“Our top priority now is trying to get money into the children’s mental health system,”  said Abderholden, who has a wait-and-see attitude of a veteran lobbyist.

This money is well-spent, Abderholden argues.

In terms of gun legislation, NAMI worries about the creation of registries and overly broad definitions.

These could place additional burdens on individuals and families trying to cope with mental illness, they argue.

“Putting people into some kind of registry, or increasing the association with mental illnesses and violence makes people all the more hesitant to step forward (to seek help),” NAMI Criminal Justice Director Anna McLafferty said.

“They (parents) would be weighing, ‘Should I bring my kid in for treatment, because they might get into this registry?’”

“Parents should not have to weigh that,” McLafferty said.

In many cases years can go by between the onset of mental illness and someone getting treatment, she said.

And the longer the span, the poorer the treatment outcome, University of Minnesota Department of Psychiatry Chair Dr. Charles Schulz said in a legislative committee.

In part, this delay is attributable to the people suffering from mental illness keeping silent, he said.

“You can’t quite see it from the outside,” Schulz said of the workings of the mind.

But mental illness can also be “horrifying” for families, Schulz said.

He spoke of a parent who used to light a candle and pray by the bed of a child, hoping the voices the child was hearing would go away.

“That’s been a big problem,” Schulz said of the public’s lack of understanding of mental illness.

Tim Burkett of People Inc., a metro-based mental health group, spoke of the “stigma” of mental illness.

Burkett, whose siblings suffered from mental illness, spoke in committee of families bearing a “scarlet letter.”

Others who have dealt with mental illness in the family look at the issue bluntly.

Former state Rep. Mindy Greiling of Roseville has a son with a form of schizophrenia.

Only a “small fraction” of people with mental illness are potentially dangerous, Greiling agrees.

Indeed, she’s glad her son never picked up on the family tradition of hunting — not out of fear of violence to others but the risk of him committing suicide, she explained.

(The National Institute of Mental Health places the risk of violence among people with schizophrenia as small. But it notes schizophrenics attempt suicide much more often than others.)

However minimal, Greiling believes the risk of violence from people suffering from mental illness shouldn’t be dismissed.

“It shouldn’t be swept under the rug,” she said.

At the Legislature Greiling often spoke of her family’s dealings with mental illness.

She detests the usage of a certain catch-words in discussing the issue.

“I hate the ‘stigma’ word,” she said.

It generates a “poor me” mentality — a self-fulfilling prophecy of helplessness, she argued.

Instead, Greiling champions a forceful, ongoing discussion.

That will bring mental illness out of the shadows as it did for the disabled decades ago, she said.

NAMI officials emphasize education.

“I think that educating the public on what are the signs that someone might be developing a mental health problem is incredibly important,” McLafferty said.

Most people don’t know “a heck of a lot” about it, she said.

People sometimes think it’s best not to say anything.