The Tragedy of Unaddressed Mental Illness

By Dr. Michael A. Lindsey

Twelve victims. And the thirteenth fatality—the presumed perpetrator, Aaron Alexis. Unfortunately, the Navy Yard shooting tragedy has become commonplace in our society. And, once again we learn the perpetrator had underserved or inadequately treated mental illness.

All too often, we connect with these mass shootings on levels other than mental illness. The proponents for stiffer gun ownership legislation will point to this tragedy as another indication that too many guns on the streets, in the wrong hands led to this unfortunate and very sad outcome. On the other side of the argument, those who lobby for gun ownership suggest that it is a fundamental right to bear arms—consistent with the protections offered under the Second Amendment. Gun ownership, they argue, may even be a deterrent to criminal behavior.

However, in the case of mass shooters, we are continually learning of their untreated/undertreated mental illness. How can we learn from these tragedies?

First, we can become more impassioned about creating better access to treatment, particularly in school- and community-based settings. Studies show that when mental health services are co-located in communities that tend to have an overrepresentation of mental health need they create better access to treatment, and thus more use of those services.

Second, we need to have more public health campaigns that target messages toward mental illness stigma.

Third, we need to offer stronger support to those who experience mental illness; family members can be vital cogs to ensuring that loved ones connect to treatment. Offer to accompany a loved one with mental illness to treatment. Be patient and listen to their concerns or struggles with life. Finally, there is also an interesting gender perspective to this issue. That is, what we tend to see in mental health services research and practice is that men have a tougher time both connecting to and staying in treatment. There is an implicit gender bias in our society in terms of what it means for a man to ask for or seek help when he experiences an emotional, psychological struggle. There is a pervasive masculinity ethic suggesting that men are supposed to “tough it out,” or “show no sign of weakness.” Such perceptions counter positive, help-seeking behaviors one might engage in to get connected to mental health treatment.

Such tragedies as the September 16th Navy Yard shooting remind me that we have so long to go in terms of how we as a society view and treat mental illness.

Michael Lindsey, PhD, MSW, MPH holds a joint appointment as associate professor in the School of Social Work and a faculty affiliate in the Center for School Mental Health, School of Medicine (Department of Psychiatry) at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. Dr. Lindsey’s research and mental health practice experiences examine the prohibitive factors that lead to unmet mental health need among vulnerable, Black youth with depression and other serious mental health needs. Dr. Lindsey is developer of the Making Connections Intervention (MCI), a program designed to prepare adolescents to be positively involved in mental health services for depression. He can be reached by email at nerve.us.breakdown@gmail.com. He can also be followed on Twitter @DrMikeLindsey.

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