The role of mental health in gun violence is not simple and there is no quick fix

A few years ago, while working as an emergency physician in Plymouth Meeting, I received a call about a mental health crisis that I still remember.

The police arrived first. We were told the patient had a weapon, so we were not allowed in the home. Eventually I pushed them away and found the patient, a 16-year-old black boy clutching his weapon – a book.

The boy’s mother said her son had not been taking his psychiatric medication, but she was at her wits end working different jobs and couldn’t offer the care he needed. We took him to the hospital for examination and treatment. I sat in the back of the ambulance and he and I talked; we created a plan for the next time he felt like no one was on his side (he would talk to his grandfather).

I hugged him goodbye and he told me he wished he always had someone like me to talk to. But all I did was listen and try to come up with a plan that would work for him.

I think about this call a lot as each new episode of gun violence – this time, the mass shooting in Highland Park, Illinois. and the shootings on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway on July 4 – renewing calls for research into our nation’s mental health crisis. I keep wondering what might have happened if I hadn’t gotten past the police that night to get to that boy so I could discover he didn’t actually have a gun.

The recently passed bipartisan anti-gun violence bill rests heavily on funding for mental health services, but is very light on acknowledging that there is no single mental health crisis—each person’s mental health needs are unique, and there are thousands , if not millions, of people in need of individual care. One size does not fit all, but this is how we legislate, educate and treat.

» READ MORE: Do mental health provisions belong in bipartisan Senate gun safety deal?

By adding mental health investments to gun violence prevention measures, the bill also creates a false connection between mental health and violent tendencies, instead of creating the expectation that millions will simply get the care — often long-term — they need and deserve.

I have personally experienced the expectation that there is a quick and easy “cure” for mental health crises.

A few years ago my ex partner started threatening to stalk me if we ever broke up. With the help of Congreso, a non-profit organization in Kensington that helps residents in predominantly Latino neighborhoods, I moved out of the house we had bought together into my own apartment and was diagnosed with PTSD. At the time, I was working in clinical research and didn’t have enough sick days to take off, so I continued to work while receiving treatment.

I wasn’t my usual self. Many of my coworkers would startle me just by coming near me (a common PTSD symptom), and my nervousness made them jump. I had nightmares and trouble sleeping, so I was tired at work. I also had difficulty focusing and struggled with a lot of brain fog. Once a week I took an extended lunch to see my therapist. I was denied a request to work from home once a week to be near my emotional support dog Rocky.

“I have personally experienced the expectation that there is a quick and easy ‘cure’ for mental health crises.”

Alexandra Hunt

My team leader, frustrated with my treatment schedule and requests for accommodations, asked me, “When do you think you’ll get better?”

When it comes to mental health, people want a quick and easy solution, and when they don’t get it, they get frustrated (like my former employer) or just give up.

What if one of the millions of people receiving mental health care under the new gun violence bill becomes a mass shooter? Critics will again falsely link mental health to violence, saying that pouring more money into mental health and early intervention is a waste and that it doesn’t “cure” people.

The goal of increasing funding for mental health care should focus on catching more people in need of care who slip through the cracks. More funding is good, but only if it comes with realistic expectations that don’t put the onus on patients to get better and recognize that different people need different treatments that are tailored to them.

Mental health care is not the “cure” for mass shootings, but it is a step in the right direction for a healthier America.

Alexandra Hunt is a public health researcher who recently campaigned to represent Pennsylvania’s 3rd Congressional District in the US Congress.

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