SPECIAL NOTE: This article is written and submitted by Bonnie Jo Schell, Chairperson of the Board of Directors for NC CANSO.
President Obama’s Plan to protect US children and communities from random and planned violence includes one alarming proposal. The President wants all loopholes closed from state and national lists that could keep guns out of dangerous hands—the hands of those diagnosed to be mentally ill. NY quickly passed legislation to force professionals to notify an agent of the state if they reasonably judged the patient as likely to harm herself or others, compromising patient-doctor confidentiality.
Keeping lists of people either receiving treatment or committed for danger to self or others or likelihood to functionally deteriorate is scapegoating the one out of every five Americans likely to need mental health treatment at some point in their lives. The List demonizes the “Other” as The Problem, in the same way that the rhetoric in the last election demonized 47% of our citizens receiving government benefits as being responsible for the high debt ceiling of the US. At least none of the mass murderers since Columbine were members of the 47%.
In scapegoating a person or relatively powerless group is made to bear the blame, is punished and stigmatized for wrongs that were not of his doing. The term comes from a goat let loose in the wilderness on Yom Kippur after the high priest symbolically laid the sins of the people of Israel on its head. (Lev 16:8-22.) In the U.S. we have scapegoated Communists and their sympathizers, Japanese-Americans, Gays, Roman Catholics, the Irish, African-Americans, people from Mexico or South America, and since the 9/11 attacks, people of Middle Eastern ancestry. The Inquisition tortured and burned people making suggestions of religious and social reform; The Holocaust gassed people charged with being a drain on the German economy: The lists of expendables included Gypsies, the Physically and Mentally Disabled, Inebriates, Homosexuals, and Jews—all “useless eaters.”
The Dangerous List would contain many false positives since the only sure way to get services is to say you feel like killing yourself or someone else. Every homeless person in the dead of winter knows that.
The Dangerous List is a rush to “do something” that is overly simplified and not sound:
• Neither experts in criminal law nor psychiatrists can accurately predict the next violent offenders.
• Individuals with suicidal ideation will be careful to not mention it to a therapist or doctor for fear of being put on The List. Whose suicide rates have increased at an alarming rate? Teenagers and senior men, usually not in treatment. There are twice as many suicides among mental health patients as homicides.
• The chances that the list would contain more than 1% of the 5% of persons with mental illness who commit violent acts while using alcohol is slim.
• In these days of mass access to information “in the public domain,” lists of persons with mental illness are bound to be misused. Will Community Colleges and/or Universities check their applicants against The List? Will veterans with PTSD be turned down for further education? Will Homeland Security use The List at airports?
• Those considered to have the personality disorder of being a sociopath without any empathy for others may never be on The List unless a parent puts them on when they kill animals as a child, store up grudges, blaming others, and are socially rejected from groups they wish to belong to.
Back in 1963 when I was diagnosed with schizophrenia, the doctor told my parents to be sure I never received help in the public system or had my psychiatric sessions submitted to a group or private insurance company or I would never be allowed to teach school in Georgia. I learned to pass as “normal.” I was fearful on every job that it would somehow be discovered that I lied in answering the old question: Have you now or in the past been diagnosed or told you have a mental illness? That question, along with birthdate, is gone now since it was a violation of the American with Disabilities Act.
I thought times had changed. Mental Illness is now known to be a condition from which at least 60% recover completely. Hollywood and country music stars, athletes and politicians, have been open about having depression or bipolar and addiction disorders. They get treatment, are interviewed on mindful, deliberate changes in their lives they are making, and they go back to work.
Personally I don’t object to persons who have been judicially committed as a danger to self or others being prohibited from owning a gun, but that prohibition should have time limits and not be for a lifetime.
In the US we keep a registry of those with Tuberculosis because of its extreme contagion and destruction. We keep lists of convicted pedophiles, but not all of those who may have thought about sexually molesting minors and mentioned that to a therapist. Even though a small percentage of persons with diabetes go into a coma and cause automobile or truck accidents, we don’t require doctors to turn in the names of those with Type I or II Diabetes. People with epilepsy in most states can have a driver’s license if they have gone three years without a seizure. We do not have a master list of households to which peace officers have been called for domestic violence or restraining order violations; that information only is revealed in the newspapers after a murder.
The last time I was seriously and dangerously suicidal, I made a daily contract with my doctor to live another day and to write poetry and call a friend every day until I began to feel better. If I had revealed my suicidal thoughts and the doctor had immediately reported me to authorities, I would not have gone back. Compiling a master Dangerous Persons List gives the state a false sense of protection and safety. Furthermore, it removes dignity and respect from a group of people who have not committed a crime.
It would make more sense to reduce the availability of weapons of mass destruction.
Bonnie Jo Schell
January 21, 2013