By Gina Newsome Duncan, M.D.
Dr. Molly McVoy recently blogged about the horrific shootings of Representative Gabrielle Giffords and others on Saturday, January 8, 2011. This tragic incident has sparked widespread national debate about all aspects of the case, including mental health treatment in this country and links between violence and mental illness.
The fact is that most people with mental illness are not violent, and that violence is most often caused by those who are not mentally ill. However, this incident does provide an opportunity for us as a nation, to seriously consider the state of our mental health services. If we examine it carefully, we can possibly prevent further acts of violence, and also think about how we help those who are in need of mental health treatment.
It is an unfortunate reality that mental illness remains largely shrouded in stigma, and tragic events such as this often help to only deepen that stigma in the minds of the public. As a result of this stigma, many people live with unnecessary shame and suffering, not seeking the help that they need. Most often, the primary victim is the person living with the illness, and by extension, their loved ones. Very rarely, however, untreated illness can lead to tragic consequences that reach far beyond the person with the illness and his or her family.
Like physical illness, mental illness has the best outcome when recognized and treated early. We should let this tragedy be a call to become more proactive in addressing issues of mental illness in our communities.
There are several important steps that can be taken:
1) As a public, we can become more informed about the signs, symptoms and treatment of mental illness.
2) We can all work to destigmatize mental illness. The American Psychiatric Association’s Council on Communications is actively involved using this blog and with other activities.
3) Educate yourself on how mental health is funded in your community and let your vote count when issues of mental health funding are on the ballot.
It is true that there are rare situations in which a person with a severe mental illness may become violent. In most cases, this violence will be self-directed in the form of suicidal acts, but in rare instances, it may be directed toward others as well. What can be done in those situations?
1) If you are personally experiencing a mental illness and are having thoughts of harming yourself or others, it is important that you seek help from a doctor, therapist, or 911 immediately.
2) If you are the friend or family member of a person experiencing a severe mental illness and you are concerned due to actions or statements they have made that they may be a danger to themselves or others, it is important that you seek help from a doctor, therapist, or by calling 911 immediately.
a. Be as detailed about your concerns as possible.
b. Do not let your concern go unheard, put it in writing.
c. Firearms and weapons should be kept sealed and locked, or ideally, removed from the home.
d. Unfortunately, many communities do not have adequate crisis prevention resources. Familiarize yourself with the procedures your community does have for involuntary hospitalization. You can get this information by calling your local health department, hospital department of psychiatry, emergency room, community mental health center, family physician, or police department.