Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Stigma of Mental Illness and its Role in the Current Gun Control Debate

I received a message today from asking me to sign a petition to Congress in support of stricter gun control laws prohibiting certain groups of people from being allowed to purchase firearms.  I feel as though the statement I was asked to support was offensive in light of the tone it took.  While I support responsible gun control regulations, I hope that the debate for and against them can avoid relying on sweeping statements that suggest that all those with mental illnesses have a propensity for violence and recognize that there is a real stigma stemming from that which serves to keep people from seeking help.  I'll copy and paste the ColorOfChange position and my response.  I'll be surprised if I receive a favorable response from them or from those who read this post, but I would like to share my view with you anyway.

The email:

Earlier this month we witnessed a tragic shooting in Tucson, AZ, leaving 6 dead, and 20 others — including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords — injured. While rhetoric from the far-fight that feeds distrust and hatred towards our politicians (especially among the mentally ill) needs to be called out and countered, another factor jumps out. Someone like Jared Lee Loughner should never have been able to buy a gun.

We already have laws that make it illegal for criminals and the mentally ill to purchase guns. But a broken background check system and wide enforcement loopholes -- kept in place by the gun lobby and the National Rifle Association (NRA) -- have made it difficult to keep guns out of the wrong hands. It's time to close these gaps once and for all. You can help.
Please join us, along with Mayors Against Illegal Guns and others, in making it clear to politicians that everyday Americans support common sense reform and will stand with them if they lead in keeping guns from the most dangerous among us; and please ask your friends and family to join as well. It takes just a moment:
Two commonsense reforms could prevent future tragedies. First, we should ensure that all the names of people who should be prohibited from buying a gun are entered into the background check system. Then we must close the loopholes that allow people to purchase guns with no background check at all. It sounds easy — but the powerful gun lobby, led by the NRA, has stood in opposition.
The attempted assassination of a member of Congress has frightening implications for our political culture that we should take very seriously. But we should also take this moment to remember that dozens of ordinary people are murdered with guns every day.
It’s a problem that everyone should care about solving — but it disproportionately affects Black, poor, and other disadvantaged communities. Black men are 9 times more likely than white men to be murdered with guns. In too many Black communities across the country, gun violence is a constant danger.
The danger is fueled by the easy availability of guns for those who are legally prohibited from possessing them. And it is so easy for dangerous people to puchase guns because of deep flaws in the systems meant to prevent this from ever occurring. One problem is that those who should be prohibited from buying guns, such as felons and the mentally ill, don’t always make it into the federal background check database. That means gun stores who are trying to follow the law may inadvertently sell guns to dangerous people.
But perhaps more troubling, there are huge loopholes in the law that allow people to bypass background checks altogether. For instance, in the well-known “gun show loophole,” anyone can purchase deadly automatic weapons — weapons designed to kill as many people as possible as quickly as possible — from a gun show with no background check whatsoever.
If any lesson is to be taken from the tragic events in Tucson, it is that these gaps can have deadly consequences. Now, with growing public support for change, there is a unique opportunity to strengthen America’s gun laws to keep these weapons out of the wrong hands.
Please stand with us and our partners at Mayors Against Illegal Guns in asking Congress to do just that. And when you do, please ask your friends and family to do the same.
Thanks and Peace,
-- James, Gabriel, William, Dani, Natasha and the rest of the team
   January 25th, 2011

The petition text:

Earlier this month a tragic shooting in Tucson, AZ targeting Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords killed six people and injured 20. The senseless attack left us grappling with many questions, but one thing is very clear: Whatever you believe about gun laws, we should all be able to agree that we should do everything possible to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill.
Unfortunately, a broken system of background checks and wide enforcement loopholes make it difficult to keep guns out of the wrong hands. Please join us, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, and others in calling on Congressional leaders to enact reforms now:
Below is the message we'll send to Congress on your behalf:
Dear Representative / Senator,
In the wake of the recent shootings in Tucson, I was upset to learn that Congress has long tolerated wide loopholes in the laws meant to keep guns out of the hands of criminals, drug abusers, the mentally ill and other dangerous people.  I'm calling on you to immediately close these gaps by taking two critical steps:
1) Get all the names of people who should be prohibited from buying a gun into the background check system.
2) Close the loopholes in the background check system.
Without taking these steps, the gun control laws intended to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous individuals are rendered practically meaningless.  Because Jared Lee Loughner wasn't placed in the database for a previous drug conviction, he was able to purchase the gun he used to target Congresswoman Giffords, kill six, and wound 20.
That is to say nothing of the 34 Americans each day who are murdered with guns -- many of which have not been legally obtained.  We can't accept the flaws in our background check system that lead to these tragic deaths.
[Your Name]

My response: 

While I have generally felt comfortable supporting ColorOfChange causes in the past, I was very disappointed in the last email message you asked me to send to Congress regarding the Tuscon shootings. This is a quote from your form letter/message that you planned to send to Congress on my behalf: "In the wake of the recent shootings in Tucson, I was upset to learn that Congress has long tolerated wide loopholes in the laws meant to keep guns out of the hands of criminals, drug abusers, the mentally ill and other dangerous people." I just want to take a few minutes of your time to explain why I found this statement to be particularly disturbing and why I could not put my name on the petition.

You have no reason to know this, but I myself am "mentally ill.” (Actually I prefer to be referred to as a person with mental illness, as my illness does not define me any more than diabetes would define a person with diabetes.) I have no desire to own a gun at this point in my life, but I believe that I am capable of being a responsible gun owner if I so choose, in spite of my mental illness. I am one of those productive, peaceful, “everyday Americans” you mentioned in your email message promoting this petition. I've been able to hold onto a great job in spite of my health condition and have very positive relationships with my coworkers and supervisors. I enjoy the company of friends and family who love and support me and I participate actively in efforts to better my community. By all means, I have been able to manage my condition and live a full, rich life.

It concerns me greatly that your form letter lumps "the mentally ill" in with "criminals, drug abusers...and other dangerous people." Perhaps you did not mean to, but your statement quite unambiguously equates having a mental illness with being a dangerous person. I would certainly reject any insinuation that I am a dangerous or violent person. As I'm sure you agree, the mere instance of mental illness in a person does not make that person dangerous. I'm sure you also acknowledge that the majority of violent crimes committed in this country are committed by individuals who do not suffer from any mental illness. In fact, those with severe mental illnesses are significantly more likely to be raped, robbed, or otherwise violently victimized than the rest of the general population.

So perhaps when you said "mentally ill" you really meant “a person with a destabilizing mental health condition who has a propensity for violent behavior as determined by a mental health professional.” I can agree that there should be a process by which those individuals are flagged for the purposes of gun ownership background checks. However that's not the way your petition is written. It suggests that all or many of those with mental illness are somehow dangerous and a threat and, unfortunately, the letter does not go on to provide any qualifications to suggest that this is not a sweeping statement. Again, I support gun control but I do not believe that an instance of mental illness should be an automatic exclusion from gun ownership.

You may ask me why this wording matters so much to me and you may even feel as though I am nitpicking. As someone who regularly deals with the stigma of mental illness, I can assure you I am not. There is a significant amount of shame and ridicule associated with mental illness in this country and it makes people feel like they can't reach out for help and treatment without it negatively impacting their jobs, social life, and family relationships. This is a vicious cycle that can lead to worsening of a person's symptoms and diminish their quality of life. Wording is important and when certain ideas become a regular part of the way we use language, it can have a damaging effect. I believe that the wording you used here is a reflection of this stigma and has the very real effect of perpetuating the shame associated with mental illness in our country at a time when I hope that your intent is the opposite.

Again, as a person that believes in effective gun control and agrees with the idea of requiring extensive screenings prior to gun purchases, I agree with the general sentiment of your comments. However, as a person who knows what it's like to be stigmatized, I implore you to choose your words more carefully in the future. I hope that you understand how this type of wording is hurtful. I implore you to consult the NAMI website from information about the stigma of mental illness.

Thank you for your time.

I welcome your thoughts.

Until next time,

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Book Club and New Recipe - Hearty Vegan Carrot and Potato Curry

I am trying to make time this year to go back to my book club meetings.  The group I belong to is called the Hungry Intellectuals.  In addition to reading one non-fiction book per month on any of a wide variety of topics, we also each bring a dish and share a meal over the discussion.  This month's book was The Devil in the White City.  It's supposed to be a #1 Bestseller, but I kept falling asleep while trying to read it. (Oops!)  I'll give the author the benefit of the doubt that it's because I'm no longer taking my "wakefulness" medication and not because the book is a slow read.

Anyway, since I can't really say much about the book, I'll just tell you about the dish I made.  I originally thought I might make a potato avocado soup I saw online, but decided that the weather isn't really appropriate right now for a cold soup.  Instead, I made a curry stew with potatoes, carrots, onions, cauliflower, chickpeas, bell peppers, and coconut milk.  I put all the ingredients into the recipe calculator at My Fitness Pal, and it actually only has 145 calories per cup.  I uploaded the recipe to and may try to start doing that at least once a month.  We'll see how that goes. :)

Hopefully I'll be able to write another post this month to let you know the good news about my weight loss journey.  (Hint: Check the badge in my side bar.)

Until next time,