Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Guns and the Mentally Ill

On Facebook, I'm a fan of NY Times Reporter Nicholas D. Kristof

Mr. Kristof's status reads today:

Just in case Pres. Obama visits my FB page, what should we suggest for his State of the Union speech? My hope is that he calls for banning oversize ammo magazines, like the 33-round one used in Tucson. Even Cheney favors a ban on them. And gun serial numbers that are harder to scratch out. And tighter restrictions on the mentally ill obtaining weapons. Your thoughts? Other suggestions for the President?
I'm not an NRA member (this is my disclaimer here) and I've never had much use for guns. But I had thoughts about the issue of "tighter restrictions on the mentally ill obtaining weapons."
I wondered what that meant and how one defines "the mentally ill." Oh, and my second disclaimer here is that I don't know how current regulations work in determining who is mentally ill with regards to purchasing a weapon. I've never reported to any central source any information about who I'm treating so they can't buy guns and no one has ever asked me to sign off on a gun permit. I'm not sure how it's determined that someone has a mental illness and shouldn't own a gun.

It doesn't take very much to get yourself into the range of being 'mentally ill.' Knock-on-door community studies, known as the ECA studies-- meaning Epidimeologic Catchment Area-- show that over half of all people have an episode of mental illness at some point. This includes phobias and anxiety disorders. NAMI tells us that one in five people have a serious mental illness.

Some of the people who commit crimes with legal guns haven't sought treatment. If you haven't gotten a diagnosis, how can you be designated mentally ill for gun ownership? Does gun ownership get designated by diagnosis? Certainly, owning a gun is not a great idea for a person with brittle bipolar disorder who gets violent and impulsive. But we all know that the diagnosis of 'bipolar' disorder has become a bit loose and over-inclusive. An angsty teenager sees a psychiatrist and is diagnosed with bipolar disorder. If he does well later, should he be forbidden from buying a gun at the age of 40? I believe one standard is a psychiatric hospitalization for over 30 days, but I'm not certain how--or if-- that's reported.

I suppose we worry about the Big Brother aspect here. Maybe instead of "mental illness" the standard should be that if college student is expelled, or an employee is fired, for certain behaviors then they are reported to a 'no-guns' data bank. Then you'd capture violent and threatening people who have not sought treatment but may well be dangerous. Oh, I'm just mouthing off here about something I admit that I know little about. But I hate finding one more thing to stigmatize mental illness over in a way that is not likely to effectively decrease gun violence.

Have a happy Facebook day, Mr. Kristof.

Any thoughts?