Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Legislative Neglect to Gun Violence and Mental Illness

The Standard-Examiner, January 9, 2017, reported about a pilot program in the Ogden School District, Ogden, Utah, to deal with the problems related to mental health among its students. The alarming part of the news was that at a January 4, 2017, meeting of the Board of Education, Special Education Director Karen Harrop stated that there is, “ … a drastic increase in the number of students with serious mental health concerns, including bipolar disorder, depression and anxiety.” This news dovetailed with the incident on January 6, 2017, at Ft. Lauderdale, FL airport, where Iraq War veteran Esteban Santiago shot and killed five travelers and wounded another six.

It is claimed in the emerging news stories that Santiago had mental problems. He confessed to his brother and later to FBI agents in Alaska that he was hearing voices and having terroristic thoughts. The important issue is that American institutions and politicians in power still do not have a comprehensive policy for preventing such incidents. Emphasis on prevention is overlooked not only for violent crimes related to mental illness but also, for example, in the area of climate change, medical care, sexually transmitted diseases among school kids, and opioid use.

Gun violence, related to mental illness, is dealt with after its occurrence as a debatable issue, but without any significant preventable actions. Some politicians, including President Obama and Hillary Clinton, have emphasized that there should be universal background checks of all gun buyers and especially those with mental health problems. The irony is that almost all polls show that 80 to 90 percent of Americans and gun buyers support such checks, but Congressional politicians have developed this habit of nay saying to any legislation requiring background checks, even for the mentally ill.

Even though responsible authorities had known that Santiago had mental health issues, he could get a gun with multiple magazines and could carry the gun in checked baggage of an airline from Alaska to Ft. Lauderdale, FL. The gun lobby, supported by NRA and its sympathizers in politics, does support medical care for mental illness, but adequate funding for care is always on the back burner. Data from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (www.cdc.gov) show that from 1990 to 2005 total expenditure on mental health increased at the average rate of 6.3 percent per year. However, the mental health problem has worsened over time, and most of the expenditure is on disability payments rather than medical care.

National Institute of Mental Health reported on May 15, 2015, that 43 million adult Americans suffered from mental disorders, and 10 million had serious disorders in the past year. Bruce Levine, in his article “The Astonishing Rise in Mental Illness in America”, April 28, 2010, (www.counterpunch.org) states that in 1987 1 in 184 Americans had mental health disability, but it had doubled by 2007. He also argues that this increase in mental illness is largely due to drugs’ based care. For example, bipolar disorder is tied to the use of stimulus for ADHD and antidepressants to depression.

The data also show that many mass shootings are related to the mental illness of the shooters. The simple logic is that if a mentally ill person is suffering, for example, from bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or depression, and has access to a firearm, an efficient killing machine, he may engage in committing suicide, killing loved ones or killing others if triggered by some event. That happened in Aurora, CO in the crowded theater, Tucson, AZ in the shooting of US Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and six others at the rally, and in Ft. Lauderdale, FL airport.

The study by Jonathan Metz and Kenneth MacLeish, American Journal of Public Health, February 2015, finds that in 1970, 60 percent of mass shootings in US were committed by persons who had symptoms of acute paranoia, delusions and depression before the commitment of the crimes. Esteban Santiago, the Ft. Lauderdale shooter, was having mental health issues according to his brother, FBI agents and police in Alaska. But still he could obtain a gun and carry it in his baggage on his flight from Alaska to Ft. Lauderdale, FL.

In addition to medical care for the mentally ill, policy makers and politicians have not paid much emphasis on prevention of gun violence by the mentally ill by requiring universal background checks of all gun buyers. It is a relatively cheaper strategy than medical care. The Second Amendment does not prohibit enactment of such a law.

One may argue that mental health professionals may not be able to predict if a particular mentally ill person is prone to violent acts. Hence, depriving his Second Amendment right is not fair. However, most evidence shows that access to guns breeds violence, and it is not surprising that guns in the hands of mentally ill people increase the chances of violence and mass shootings. Moreover, freedom to buy firearms without universal background checks, especially of mentally ill people, deprives the rest of the society of freedom from violence and mass shootings that impose psychological and economic costs.

Congress should follow the will of most Americans by passing a universal background checks law for all gun buyers. Prevention of violence is a more cost effective strategy than dealing with its aftereffects. Aside from others costs, Professor Richard Thaler notes in his book Misbehaving (2015) that the estimated value per life saved is approximately $7 million. Violence imposes huge cost to the nation indeed.

It is dangerous for a society to get into the habit of accepting mass violence as part of the norm.

Mathur is former chair and professor of economics and professor emeritus, Department of Economics, Cleveland State University, Cleveland, Ohio. He resides in Ogden, Utah.

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