Coupling mentally ill and gun control law perpetuates stigma
The late radical Catholic priest Philip Berrigan once said, “You know what they say about liberals: Scratch ’em and you’ll find a fascist. Or at the least, a weathervane.”
Maureen Dowd, in a recent suck-up column, “Sheriff Andy of Albany,” clearly doesn’t think Gov. Cuomo is a weathervane, stating that Cuomo “shoved through tough gun legislation so blindingly fast that some state senators had scarcely read the bill, and the NRA conceded that it had no time to thwart it.”
Public hearings, three-day waiting period, carefully thought-out legislation and democracy be damned, as long as the trains run on time — as long as we have dealt with Connecticut’s violent crime problems with legislation that won’t deal with the epidemic of handgun violence among New York state’s urban youth.
And apparently, Gov. Cuomo and those who supported the legislation feel that it was OK to sacrifice some of the weakest (yet strongest), most vulnerable members of our society — the mentally ill — in order to pass gun control legislation.
Ignorance of mental illness is the only other explanation for the cynical coupling of gun control with reinforced mental hygiene legislation. Yes, New York state, which only recently took the word “retardation” out of the name of its office that deals with the mentally disabled, still refers to mental health as mental hygiene — which, along with oral hygiene, gives one the idea that if we just came up with the right kind of brain wash, maybe one with a minty flavor, we could fix our mentally ill.
The coupling of stronger gun control with stronger control of the mentally ill reveals the failure of the governor and the Legislature to use mental floss before writing and voting on the SAFE Act, which, on a smaller scale, is reminiscent in both its Orwellian name and potential consequences of George W’s Patriot Act.
The facts concerning the mentally ill are as follows: (Bing or Google them if you don’t believe me.)
• The mentally ill are 12 times more likely to be the victims of a violent crime than perpetrators of one.
• Only a small portion of violent crimes are committed by the mentally ill. Most mentally ill people are not violent.
• The vast majority of violent people are not mentally ill. For example, Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma bomber who killed 168 people, including 19 children (most younger than the ones in Newtown), was not mentally ill.
According to a BBC profile, “After examining him in prison, psychiatrist Dr. John Smith concluded that prisoner 12076-064 was a decent person who had allowed rage to build up inside him to the point that he had lashed out in one terrible, violent act.”
Mental health professionals have rightly noted that the new laws mandating that they report to the government patients who they deem might likely harm themselves or others will only result in patients either avoiding mental health treatment or not being forthcoming about any violent or suicidal thoughts they might have.
I already have had more than one non-violent, mentally ill person tell me they are going to avoid treatment now that the law has passed because they are afraid of what might happen to them. And while there are no criminal penalties attached to the failure of reporting, I am sure that will be enacted eventually, as it has with mandated reporters of child abuse.
Maybe by mixing gun control with increased control of the mentally ill, Cuomo was trying to appease those legislators who support the NRA, which had called for a national registry of the mentally unhygienic. Whatever the reason, the SAFE Act and the conversation leading up to it and since its passage has only increased the stigma of mental illness.
Adding to stigma
The focus of editorials and columns combining references to guns and the mentally ill have further stigmatized the mentally ill. Many of these columns and editorials have appeared in what are generally considered liberal newspapers. Newspapers that would not use the word “retard” if they were talking about the mentally disabled, seem comfortable using terms like “crazies,” “lunatics” and “unhinged” when talking about the mentally ill, or in some cases, using those terms to denigrate people who aren’t mentally ill.
The mentally ill, like those civilians killed by President Obama’s drone strikes against terrorist suspects, are the collateral damage of the SAFE Act.
I remember a speech given by a former governor. His name was Mario Cuomo. At the 1994 Democratic National Convention he gave the keynote address in which he talked about the struggle of people to rise above their circumstances. He said, “That struggle to live with dignity is the real story of the shining city.”
In America, few people have a harder struggle to live with dignity than the mentally ill. I ought to know. I have struggled with severe depression off and on for nine years.
So what I want to say to Gov. Cuomo and to the NRA, who have equally denigrated and stigmatized the mentally ill in the past few weeks seemingly for political purposes, is this: “I am the mentally ill, and I vote.”
Daniel T. Weaver lives in Amsterdam and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.