Proposed gun laws could stigmatize mental illness, advocates fear
BY TINA SFONDELES AND MONIFA THOMAS Staff Reporters March 27, 2013 3:28PM
Updated: April 29, 2013 6:01AM
Christine Pawlak is mentally ill.
The former Q101 disc jockey is willing to talk openly about her struggle with clinical depression and generalized anxiety and panic disorders, but she knows other people prefer to keep their troubles private.
Proposed gun laws that would require the names of patients with severe mental illness to be recorded in a national database, Pawlak and other mental health advocates fear, could keep some from seeking the help they need.
“Providing better mental health-care resources for people who are in troubled situations will do more in the long run than gun laws,” Pawlak said.
Now, she said she is among those who can function with her conditions once they undergo treatment. She has been hospitalized twice for her depression and suicidal thoughts. Now, she manages her anxiety and depression with medication, therapy, journaling and yoga.
“When I thought about Sandy Hook. . . I didn’t think about the phrase mentally ill,” she said. “What I thought about was if this person could have talked out whatever it was that got him to this point, maybe this could have been avoided.”
Lawmakers, law enforcement experts and the NRA disagree.
Last month, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart introduced the Prohibited Persons’ Enforcement Act, which would in part require all mental health providers, including private physicians, to report people who pose a risk to themselves or others. The goal is to make sure those who are deemed mentally unfit to own a gun aren’t just turning in their revoked FOID and keeping hundreds of guns in their homes, he said.
Dart says he’s not targeting the mentally ill, but he is trying to keep them from harming themselves.
“The big thing that is getting lost in the ether are the numbers [of suicides] that are so striking nationwide,” Dart said. “. . .This property is a very lethal piece of property that you can harm yourself with or harm someone else with while you’re suffering. We need to make sure everyone, especially yourself, is safe.”
Although few studies have been made on the topic, people with severe mental illness, such as schizophrenia, were found to be up to three times more likely to be violent in one study. But a more comprehensive study found that just 3 to 5 percent of violent crimes are committed by people with severe mental illness.
Mental health advocates say laws that would require all mental health facilities to report people who might be dangerous to themselves or others might keep patients from getting help.
“We already know it’s hard enough to get people with mental disorders to get help, and in many cases, it’s going to be one more obstacle,” said Dr. Paul S. Applebaum, of Columbia University. “It creates a fear that rightly or wrongly their name will be turned over to the state, law enforcement officials and be used for who knows what purpose.”
Advocates for the mentally ill say patients already are worried about the confidentiality of their treatment. Some pay for medicine or treatment out of pocket so there’s no insurance company record, he said. And going without treatment could lead to some bad consequences.
Jared Lee Loughner, who pleaded guilty to fatally shooting six people and injuring 13, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, in Tucson, Ariz., was ruled not mentally competent in 2011 but did not receive treatment until after he was imprisoned.
People who receive treatment “are not the folks who are likely to commit any kind of mayhem,” said Suzanne M. Andriukaitis, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Greater Chicago.
Rather than focus on treating the severely mentally ill, much of the national debate on gun control has focused on taking guns out of the hands of people who suffer from mental illness.
For instance, New York’s new gun-control law, besides banning assault weapons and semiautomatic guns with military-level components, requires mental health-care providers to alert state health authorities if they deem a patient is a danger to himself or others. That would allow the state to confiscate the person’s guns. Policymakers in Louisiana, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Utah also have proposed measures aimed specifically at keeping people who are mentally ill from getting guns.
Dart’s proposal follows suit in Illinois, where funding for mental health programs has been cut by more than 30 percent since 2009. That’s more than all but three other states, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Even before those cuts, Illinois’ per capita spending on mental health was about $85, well below the national average of $123.
The Illinois Department of Human Services acknowledged that there been steep cuts in mental health services, despite Gov. Quinn’s commitment to investing more in mental health services. Illinois will not be able to adequately fund those services unless comprehensive pension reform is passed by the General Assembly, the department said.
Pawlak says it’s a shame that people who suffer from mental illness have become “scapegoats” in the gun debate.
“ ‘Mentally ill’ is a label. It can mean a lot of different things,” she said. “And not everyone who that label can be applied to is necessarily violent.”