By Roger McKinney
Globe Staff Writer
JOPLIN, Mo. —
The school shooting at Newtown, Conn., last month focused new attention on mental illness.
That attention was partly brought about by Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, who made a statement on the tragedy Dec. 21.
“Our society is populated by an unknown number of genuine monsters,” LaPierre said. “People that are so deranged, so evil, so possessed by voices and driven by demons that no sane person can ever possibly comprehend them.”
He went on to ask how many more mass shootings there would be “given our nation’s refusal to create an active national database of the mentally ill.”
But his comments and his proposal for a database did not sit well with advocates of the mentally ill, including Ron Honberg, director of policy and legal affairs for the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
“He blames these tragedies on everything but guns,” Honberg said.
Del Camp, vice president of clinical operations for Ozark Center, the mental health wing of Freeman Health System, said LaPierre’s remarks didn’t do anything to advance the discussion.
“To characterize people with a serious mental illness as demons and monsters is not helpful to begin with,” Camp said. He added that few people with serious mental illness commit violent acts.
The Newtown shooter, Adam Lanza, reportedly had a form of autism, which some experts label as a developmental disorder that also is included as a serious mental illness, although the parents of children with autism take issue with it being described as a mental illness.
Vicky Mieseler, vice president of clinical services for Ozark Center, said the shooting has brought attention to mental health issues but regrets that it took a tragedy to raise the awareness.
Attempts to reach the National Rifle Association for additional comment were unsuccessful.
Camp said too often the effect of mental trauma early in life is overlooked. He said trauma can create a sense of powerlessness that can cause someone to resort to violence for control.
“We really don’t know all the facts,” he said. “There seems to be a rush to judge things quickly. I think if you look underneath the quick answers, you’re going to reveal the impact of trauma.”
Dr. Tamon Paige, a psychiatrist with Mercy Hospital Joplin, said some of the comments made following the tragedy serve to reinforce the stigma felt by people with mental illness. He and other local mental health professionals also challenged the proposal of a database for those with mental illness.
“I think that’s a very bad idea,” Paige said. “That would just cause people not to seek treatment for mental illness.”
Mieseler, citing a study that says only 4 percent of violent crimes are committed by people with mental illness, said because it is such a low percentage, no database can address the issue.
Honberg said the majority of people with mental illness aren’t dangerous and the majority of people who commit violent crimes don’t have a mental illness. Despite that, he said, it’s reasonable to keep guns out of the hands of people with a serious mental illness.
He also said current federal law should be rewritten and state compliance should be required.
Laws currently require states to report to the National Instant Background Check System those committed to a mental institution or “adjudicated as mentally defective.”
Honberg said the language is both vague and offensive, and NAMI wants legislators to rewrite existing laws to adopt standards consistent with modern medical knowledge and legal procedures. The organization has been pushing for that since the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007.
“The NAMI perspective is that we think the federal law is imperfect,” Honberg said.. “We support making the law clearer.”
But, he noted, the NRA has tried to thwart such efforts.
$4 billion cut
Honberg said $4 billion has been eliminated from state mental health budgets in recent years. He said police are often the first responders when someone with a mental illness is in crisis. At the same time, gun laws have eased, and Honberg said it’s often easier to buy a gun than to get treatment for a mental illness.
“We run toward and try to help people showing clear signs of a physical illness,” Honberg said. “When people are acting strangely or show signs of a psychiatric crisis, we run away.”
Phil Willcoxon, CEO for Ozark Center, said Joplin is bucking the trend, in part related to the 2011 tornado.
“I think Joplin’s very fortunate to have good access to mental health treatment,” Willcoxon said. “Following the tornado, I think we have developed a large safety net for mental health issues. We’re at the forefront in Joplin and in Missouri. There is a strong coalition of providers to make sure that safety net is in place and effective.”
One in four
One in four American adults experiences a mental health problem in any given year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, but the U.S. surgeon general has concluded that “the overall contribution of mental disorders to the total level of violence in society is exceptionally small.”