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Mental health advocates say gun debate misses the mark

Last month in Springfield, a committee gathered at 8 a.m. in a quiet hearing room to talk about the connection between mental health programs and guns. It was the same committee that had previously met three times to talk about gun control regulations. At each of those meetings, a velvet rope was set up outside the room to control the huge line of people waiting to get in. At the mental health hearing, the velvet rope was set up but hardly anyone showed up.

One person who did show up was Todd Vandermyde, a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association in Springfield. He talked about how the NRA is somewhere between wanting to make sure those who need mental health treatment can get it, but also advocating so that those who want guns can get them.

“I want to make sure that we don’t stigmatize people in such a way that they don’t want to seek treatment and that we take other behavioral issues and start classifying them as mental illnesses that just start becoming broad prohibitors on people when they’re trying to exercise a fundamental right,” Vandermyde said.

That right he’s referring to is the Second Amendment. Vandermyde says the N-R-A wants to make sure mental health services are funded - but also that the rights of gun owners are respected.

In our ongoing series Front and Center: Flashpoint we’re continuing to a look at how the debate over guns is affecting mental health programs. Many politicians and mental health providers say funding for mental health has dwindled in recent years. But recent mass shootings have changed the political conversation.

Still, how do people who actually work in the mental health field feel about this debate?

“People are mixing apples and oranges with porterhouse steaks,” said Dr. Carl Bell, the head of the Institute of Juvenile Research at the University of Illinois-Chicago. “There’s a lot of confusion in the conversations about mental illness and violence.”

Bell has been involved in mental health issues around Chicago for decades and he’s outspoken and blunt. Bell said the problem with how the mental health debate has been tied to gun violence is that the connection is complex. He goes down a list of the different types of gun violence.

“There’s drug-related violence, there’s hate crime violence, there’s inter-personal altercation violence, there’s stranger, robbery homicide, there’s serial killers, there’s mass killers, there’s suicide, there’s legitimate violence where people are doing self-defense,” he said.
Bell is critical of how the media has covered mass shootings and he said his solution is not a new concept.

“The way that you fix problems in people is you make sure they’re surrounded by community that’s going to take care of them: social fabric,” he said.

But so far, some state legislatures have taken on the issue through proposals by requiring more doctors like Bell to report patients who may pose a threat to themselves or others. Legislation like that hasn’t gone very far in Springfield.

Instead, Illinois has acted mostly by cutting mental health funding in recent years and closing mental health facilities, including one Bell used to run on Chicago’s South Side. Bell said it happened so fast, he doesn’t even know what happened to his patients.

“I think it’s egregious,” he said. “I think it’s reprehensible. I think it’s tragic.”

Here in Chicago a year ago, the city also closed six of its twelve mental health clinics to consolidate services. The renewed focus on mental health and gun violence comes as Governor Pat Quinn now says he wants to add $25 million to mental health programs. 

That’s good news to Elizabeth Rahuba, who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizoaffective disorder and has encountered the stigma so many people who work in mental health say they want to avoid.

“If it ever comes up in a conversation where I reveal my diagnosis, most of the people have been pretty good about it, but some people can get kind of skittish,” she said.

Rahuba spent six years living in a nursing home where a lot of people seeking mental treatment in Illinois end up living. She now lives in Hyde Park on her own and said she used to work for a private security company in Texas. She even occasionally had to carry a gun for the job, but she said those days are gone.

“I was a commissioned security officer. I did carry,” she said. “But right now, knowing my illness, that I could trigger it at any time if it ever got that bad, I wouldn’t want one.”

Rahuba said people with mental health issues like her need to recognize symptoms before they become problems. She doesn’t like the idea of requiring more doctors to report patients who might pose a threat to themselves or others.

Rahuba says that’d make it harder for her to open up to people.

Yet another reason, she says, why the current debate about mental health and gun violence may be missing the mark.

Tony Arnold covers Illinois politics for WBEZ. Follow him at @tonyjarnold.

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