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America will have to deal with blind spots: guns and mental health

When little children die in a hail of bullets in a small idyllic American town there’s no way the nation will not pay attention.

The tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut is clearly not going to be wiped away just by Barack Obama’s tears.

It’s forced America to face up to, or at least broach, two issues its politicians never want to deal with. One is guns. The other is mental health. Both are America’s great blind spots — politicians think the first is electoral suicide and the second can be swept under the carpet because not enough people care about it.

Now the proverbially penny has dropped. A brutally honest blog post from a woman who is afraid her 13-year-old troubled son can become another Adam Lanza one day has gone viral. Liza Long writes:

I live with a son who is mentally ill. I love my son. But he terrifies me.

A few weeks ago, Michael pulled a knife and threatened to kill me and then himself after I asked him to return his overdue library books. His 7 and 9 year old siblings knew the safety plan—they ran to the car and locked the doors before I even asked them to. I managed to get the knife from Michael, then methodically collected all the sharp objects in the house into a single Tupperware container that now travels with me. Through it all, he continued to scream insults at me and threaten to kill or hurt me.

The mental health crisis has been building for a long time. A lot of it has to do with government cutbacks. States have often tried to balance their budgets on the backs of public health programmes. Newtown itself shut down its mental health hospital in 1995.  In 2013 Alabama will close all its mental health hospitals except for one serving the elderly and one working with criminals. According to the National Association of State Mental Health Directors at least $4.35 billion has been cut from public mental health funding between 2009 and 2012.  "Mental health has shrunk down to the level of short-term crisis management," Dewey Cornell, director of Virginia Youth Violence Project told USA Today. "If we are going to focus on prevention, we can't think about the gunman in the parking lot and what to do with him. We have to get involved a lot earlier."

People gather at a memorial for victims near the school on the first Sunday following the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Getty Images

Mental health has been the softest target because the victims usually enjoy little public sympathy. The smelly man with a matted beard in grimy clothes sitting on the sidewalk mumbling  to himself is usually someone to avoid. The high-functioning loner youth who keeps to himself does not ping on anyone's radar. Substance abuse often correlates with mental health problems and taxpayers do not like paying for chronic substance abuse treatment. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 6 percent of the US population have a serious mental health problem. But mental health remains a shadowy illness both hard to predict or accurately diagnose. David Schimke, writes in the Utne Reader:

As a colleague noted the other day, there is a cleverly branded campaign for almost every major disease, from malaria to muscular dystrophy. We have overcome the stigma surrounding homosexuality to organise AIDS walks and rides. The desire to cure all forms of cancer is universal. Nevertheless, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a march for split personalities.

That means the Adam Lanzas hide out in plain sight, described in retrospect as a loner, camera-shy, socially awkward. Therein lies the problem of tackling mental health. So many people fit that description. It does not mean they are all ticking time bombs.

A response to Lisa Long’s anguished post has also gone viral making that very point. In You Are Not Adam Lanza’s Mother, Thursday writes

The article complains about mental illness stigma while reinforcing it by explicitly tying it to violence, and in particular, mass killings. The reality is that there is no such observed link… (M)ost people with mental illness are not violent, although they are far more likely to be victims of crime.

In fact, there’s already a critique out there that this could provide gun rights advocates with a convenient escape hatch. It’s not about guns, it’s about mental health.

For example, Mike Adams, editor of NaturalNews.com, says the tragedy at schools like the one in Newton shouldn't fixate the national attention on guns.

No gun can, by itself, shoot anyone. It must be triggered by a person who makes a decision to use it. And while people like NY Mayor Bloomberg are predictably trying to exploit the deaths of these children to call for guns to be stripped from all law abiding citizens who have done nothing wrong whatsoever, nobody calls for medication control.

Why is that? After all, medication alters the mind that controls the finger that pulls the trigger…

There is no confirmation yet that Adam Lanza was on prescribed medication. And Lanza might have had access to private mental health services. But the National Commission on Human Rights has said, “Numerous school shooters were under the influence of these drugs when they went on shooting rampages ... Yet there has never been a federal investigation into the link between psychiatric drugs and random senseless acts of violence."

Both are great crises in America, a willful blind spot on the part of politicians who don’t want the risks of taking on one, or the expenses of taking on the other. The great tragedy of Newtown would be if one becomes the excuse to not deal with the other.