SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

January 29, 2013

Column: Beware labels when talking about guns, mental illness

Thomas A. Peltz
The Salem News

---- — Murder at a political meeting in Arizona, a movie theater or school in Colorado, Sandy Hook, the Amish school in Lancaster County and college campuses around the country ... is only a partial list of horrible gun-related violent events that we are focusing upon nationally. In light of the tragedies involving shooting murders of innocent numbers of people around the world, including those in Sweden, Russia, the United States and the Middle East, I believe we as a people are missing the opportunity here before us. We are really discussing violence, but we are not calling it by the correct label. Instead, we are mislabeling it and saying “mentally ill” and “guns.”

Recently, I received a notice from the federal Department of Health and Human Services reminding clinical staff of our responsibilities to report mental health issues to other officials and care providers. On the local public radio station last week was a story of a politician planning to submit a bill to have all new gun owners submit their background mental health records before purchasing a gun.

It seems some people want to blame “the mentally ill” and “have them reported.” We tried that sort of exclusion in the past with people who had blindness and leprosy in several Bible stories. We killed witches in the Salem Witch Trials in the earlier times of our local history because they were considered different. We nationally have negatively labeled others as “inferior,” such as those with AIDS, different skin color, indigenous ways, cultural practices, and religious or national status. Remember the things we did with slaves, Native Americans, Jews in the Holocaust, gays, and currently with those people crossing or wanting to cross the borders into this country? I believe now we are reverting to a prejudice similar to these listed above, and this is now against people with “mental illness.”

If you have sought access for mental health treatment, I would be interested to learn how long you had to wait for the care to begin? Access to care is a huge issue in the treatment field, and now the current mood afoot is to have even more demands placed upon the mental health worker regarding the issue of guns. A mental health worker is already following very clear laws and guidelines to report unsafe behaviors of patients.

What is being thrown around currently in the conversations involves a very much larger issue involving both state and national laws on confidentiality, and involves the very real discriminations placed against people. Do you remember your history in this country when blind citizens were considered for sterilization so as to not pass along the genetic trait of blindness? How about the excessive psychosurgeries involving lobotomies with people who had mental illness, the mistreatment of the mentally retarded in state programs or the Bridgewater “Follies?” We must be careful not to slip backward.

Again, we are blaming people and things — the mentally ill and guns — and this is not a wise approach in dealing with a difficult situation such as violence. Remember that fear, insecurity, sadness, anger, shock, horror, confusion, denial, repression, trauma and re-victimization are only a few of the emotional states that may occur after violent acts of hurt, loss and harm happen.

We as a country need to consider both how to change our ways within our own hearts and families, as well as to establish safe and fair laws. It is far easier to label or blame others, and to set rules about the number of bullets a clip can hold. The harder work is that we need to search our values and beliefs, and talk more openly about what is at hand. This is about our tolerance of violence in our lives, and I believe we need to bring about such change in our nation.

Look at the Christian goals for peace, caring and loving thy neighbor. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi lived and died for such standards in India. Other faiths of course address peace, too. Peace and love are difficult to consider and accept in a time when church attendance is down and beliefs are not openly discussed between family members, let alone to discuss with between friends or co-workers.

Personally, I find it easier to change when I have specific guidance. The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh offers us all a wonderful guideline to study how to change. Many of you know that he was friends with Thomas Merton, the Catholic monk, that he is one of our current spiritual leaders alive today, and that he is the winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace. Please look at his “Five Principles of Mindfulness,” which may be found at www.plumvillage.org/mindfulness-trainings/3-the-five-mindfulness-trainings.html. I would ask you to find something wrong with them. If you cannot, then I would ask that you post a copy near you and start to review them regularly, and to also use and talk about them. Why not? What is the harm in doing that? It is a small thing to try, however, this is within your ability to do.

Make change start today.

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Thomas A. Peltz, MEd, LMHC, LADC-1, CAS, has worked in the mental health field since 1973. His private therapy practice office is in Beverly Farms. In 2010, he was selected as the Massachusetts Alcohol and Drug Counselor of the Year, and in 2011, he was named The Laura Roe National Alcohol and Drug Counselor of the Year.