The USCCB has now issued an official statement on responding to the tragedy at Newtown, Connecticut. The full text is available on their website. The statement calls for three basic responses. It asks for regulation of firearms, for standards which would limit violence in the entertainment industry, for consideration of our treatment of those with mental health issues. Finally, it turns our attention to the 2000 USCCB statement Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice. They close today’s statement by reissuing five specific requests from that document to legislators, including the last, which is that they “[m]ake a serious commitment to confront the pervasive role of addiction and mental illness in crime.”
I have already seen this last line quoted as though it is the bishops’ key response to those with mental health issues in the wake of the Newtown tragedy. It is not, and it is crucial to remember that it is not. This is a line made more in response to crime in general than to the particular crime that occurred last week.
The bishops’ comments on mental illness are much more extensive than this single recycled line. They say the following:
We must also reflect on our own fears as we grapple with our prejudices toward those with mental health needs. Our society must provide health services and support to those who have mental illnesses and to their families and caregivers. As a community we need to support one another so no one feels unable to get help for a mentally ill family member or neighbor in need. Burdensome healthcare policies must be adjusted so people can get help for themselves or others in need. Just as we properly reach out to those with physical challenges we need to approach mental health concerns with equal sensitivity. There is no shame in seeking help for oneself or others; the only shame is in refusing to provide care and support.
This response seems to me to include exactly the right components. We must attend to our collective fears and prejudices against those affected by mental illnesses. We must assure that they have the health, social, and support services that they need. But that alone is not enough. The stigma that is associated with mental illness in our society prevents many, many people from getting the care that they need and from helping their loved ones get the care that they need.
Michael Fitzpatrick, the executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, is likewise calling for our elected officials “to make the availability of screening, early intervention, treatment, services and supports a national priority.” He adds,
Family education and support must also be part of mental health care. Too many families don’t fully understand the nature of mental illness, what to do if they are concerned about a child and how to cope.
The Catholic bishops and the leader of the premier advocacy organization for those with mental illness are articulating the same cluster of concerns: we need to assure the key services, but we also need to fight the shame and stigma that makes it so difficult for the families most in need of those services to access them.
It is too easy, in the wake of a tragedy like the shootings at Newtown, to fear persons living with mental illnesses. But a quick look at a NAMI fact sheet yields a lot of information about the extent of mental illness among us. One in four adults experiences a mental health disorder in any given year. One in seventeen lives with a serious, chronic mental illness like schizophrenia or bipolar disease. One in ten children in the US lives with either a serious mental or emotional disorder. (See the link to the fact sheet above and its footnotes for more information on those numbers.) All around us, our brothers and sisters, our sons and daughters, our parents, our partners, our neighbors, our co-workers, and our friends are living with these illnesses.
Our bishops have asked that we put mental health on our agenda in the wake of Newtown. It seems to me that we need to be asking ourselves two basic questions in order to do this well. First, how might we as churches better assist families and individuals struggling with mental health issues to seek the care they need? And second, how might churches better partner with organizations like NAMI to shape an ongoing national conversation to advocate for the needs of those with mental health issues and to create a culture where there is no shame or stigma to needing mental health care?
As someone who works in a parish, I can simply tell you that there are so many mental health needs, and a limited number of ways to deal with them. We have to find some way to change this.
Unfortunately, this statement does as much to further stigmatize mental illness as those news commentators who irresponsibly diagnosed the Newtown shooter with Aspberger’s. The bishops assume a connection between mental illness and violent crime without any evidence to support it. Even though they go on to make a genuine claim to improve mental health care and end stigmatization, their underlying premise connecting mental illness and violent crime remains. There is no indication that the Newtown shooter had a mental illness. People described him and “quiet and weird” and everyone simply extrapolated. To continue to make this connection in our public conversations is deeply problematic. I’d encourage readers to watch the PBS special _After Newtown_, especially the segment that interviews researchers of violent crime. Please stop perpetuating the myth of mental illness as cause for violent crime. Mental illness, neurological disorders (which aspergers is) and developmental disabilities provide no answers for these tragedies.
Contemplationnation, can you clarify where the bishops (or I) “assume a connection between mental illness and violent crime”? I certainly don’t mean to assume this, but I also don’t intend to be silent about mental illness because this particular conversation happens in the wake of a violent crime. It seems to me that the bishops, Michael Fitzpatrick, PBS, and I are all joining a concerned nation in talking about mental illness. The line about exploring the “pervasive role of addiction and mental illness in crime” is (as I attempted to point out) a line from a document on crime. It is not about Newtown nor specifically about violent crime. It is quoted as part of a list that focuses more on gun control and the entertainment industry than anything else. The point I’m trying to make (and, I believe, highlight from among the bishops’ points) is precisely that mental health care is an issue for many, many Americans each year. These people are actually much more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of it. They are our friends and neighbors, people we are not afraid of, people to whom we own the love and care that comes with community, especially Christian community. I certainly agree with you that mental illness and other brain or developmental disorders don’t provide answers here. And you are certainly right that there is no clear evidence that this shooter had any form of mental illness. However, those who live with mental illnesses were stigmatized before this event and will be stigmatized (likely worse) in its wake. I think talking about that is a good thing.
The Bishops three points…guns, entertainment, mental health…all are slow moving areas faced with legal blockage ( guns ( excepting maybe assault gun ban) and entertainment) or fiscal cut backs ( mental health). You just had conservative Catholics and some Bishops ( implicitly) back Paul Ryan for vice president who wanted to reduce Federal spending on medicaid by $800 billion over ten years. Medicaid covers half of mental health patients in the country. Obama sought to mandate it’s expansion in the states but the Supreme Court struck that down and only 15 states are doing so on their own. With both parties agreeing to entitlement cutbacks, hope in this area by the Bishops is just nice prose except as to new laws that allow coercive confinement of extremely pyschotic persons deemed dangerous by psychiatrists rather than by judges and attorneys.
There is a faster solution proposed by the NRA who I don’t instinctively like but who are correct
in their area of wonderment: we guard our money with armed guards at most banks but we won’t
guard our children with similar armed guards. Perhaps we dream of being Europe ( ex Finland) but
Europe is different psychologically and often homogenous ethnically within given areas for
centuries. Europe has rooted people and neighborhoods and doesn’t have the rich poor divide of the US even though Europe took part in causing that divide here historically via the slave trade and via white indentured servants being sent here inter alia. Also we attract aggressive families here from all over the world rather than attracting very mellow families. Hence our Lanza family whose mom enjoyed guns but was in denial as to not locking them in a safe when leaving her son for several days on his own.
The Bishops should have also recommended armed guards in schools but the Church seems very media/ image sensitive and high culture ( NY Times) compliant in violence areas. The Pope however has bodyguards armed with elite Sig Sauer pistols ( 15 and up rounds per magazine/ semi automatic). Our little ones should get the same protection as the Pope by our employing retired police ( they retire in their early 50’s in big city areas)…or asking them to volunteer as the NRA suggested. The Bishops have addressed three slow moving litigious or fiscally restrained areas….gun control, entertainment and mental health. It reminds me of how long they took to really act on sex abuse. Guarding our school children the way the Pope is
guarded is much quicker. I’d love to see money shunted from defense and the military industrial complex into defending our school children instead of defending Japananese islands that want us out or South Korea who can defend herself.
Dana–Thank you for your response. I realize my words were terse–I think like many I’ve been worn down by our collective grief and confusion and need to be more gracious in my posts–especially with people who share my concerns. I am still struggling to understand why we are connecting the Newtown tragedy and mental illness. Initially, we needed some explanation and mental illness seemed to be an easy one that already fit into our constellation of fears. As you point out–we are afraid of people with mental illness. But rather than correct this faulty correlation (which is what i wish the Bishops had done) our discourse (by no means is this limited to the Bishop’s statement) has continued to speak of Newtown and mental health in the same breath. Yes, we need to have these conversations, but the meanings of our discourse very much depend on the context from it emerges. I’m by no means trying to silence you and your good work on this topic. For better or worse, Newtown has gotten us thinking about mental health issues, but we have been so quick to make this correlation and not quick enough to correct it. I hope our religious leaders would encourage us to right action and careful contemplation.
Sara, thanks for your response, too. I am always thinking and talking about mental illness (though not often blogging about it). You are right that the correlation between mental illness and such crimes as Newtown comes quickly. Although that correlation is not necessarily wrong (nor necessarily correct), it is certainly the case that, in their ordinary and varied forms, mental illnesses don’t ordinarily lead people to anything like this kind of violence. It remains the case that the millions of people living with mental illnesses are more likely to be the victims of violent crimes than the perpetrators of them. I hope the conversations continue well past this tragedy.