May 23rd, 2014 – Santa Barbara, California: another day, another shooting rampage, a few more souls lost to mental illness. More calls for gun control. More calls for funding of public health programs. More wringing of our hands and gnashing of our teeth where as a society we wrestle with what we can do to prevent disturbed individuals like Elliot Rodger from senselessly taking the lives of others.
I’d like to take a pragmatic approach to what we might do, starting with gun control.
As we saw recently, opponents of gun control are very effective politically at making impassioned arguments that owning a gun is the manifestation of a God-given right to defend personal self and property against threats from others – and most particularly in the minds of some political activists (i.e., the Tea Party), the government. And they have huge lobbying strength.
Now I feel I have to share, that even for those most zealous gun enthusiasts with huge caches of automatic weapons I truly don’t understand how they would expect to defend their neighborhood against an AH-64 Apache helicopter should there ever be a military-supported government coup. Can’t you see it? A long row of sixty-something Harley riders with ammo strips strapped over their shoulders, long grey hair flowing from under their skull n bones bandanas. Waving their AK-40’s wildly as they fall like dominoes. Sort of like us fifty-something’s having to get under our desks in grade school during the 60s to rehearse protecting ourselves against a nuclear attack. But I digress.
Humor aside, I think it’s important in this discussion to understand that gun ownership is a culturally ingrained part of wide swaths of our society. Unless that changes gun control legislation and regulations will have about as much success in the 21st century that Prohibition had against controlling alcohol production and consumption in the early 20th century. And perhaps there is a measure of truth in recognizing that in both instances the policy focus is misplaced by not recognizing the ultimate responsibility of acts committed under the influence or with a weapon (or both) lies with the individual, not the bottle or the gun.
So ruling out much hope for gun control as a viable approach to prevent these types of tragedies we next turn to doubling down on promoting policies that will expand access to mental health services. But what if rather than spending more money to treat mental illness and its symptoms as distinct and separate from physiological well being we instead doubled down on efforts to understand how critically important it is to treat mind and body together.
I realize there are earnest efforts all across the country to integrate physical and mental health and move toward holistic well being. But from what I have seen those efforts are mostly incremental in nature and not going to create the transformational shift in health practitioners’ approach that can ultimately have the type of impact on mental illness we seek.
I think what is required is a paradigm shift in thinking about where and how mental health integrates with the overall health and wellness of the individual. We need to begin recognizing that mental well-being is a spiritual reality that, while ultimately the manifestation of physiological attributes, exists independent of those attributes.
And in this way it is just as much a vital organ as is the heart, the brain and so on. And that leads me to believe we should be thinking of human mentality as an organ. Just as our physical organs are necessary to provide human cells with basic needs to sustain life, we are learning more every day how important our human mentality is to cellular health.
I believe if we can broadly achieve this vantage it would change the way we approach research, the way health practitioners integrate awareness of mental health into diagnoses and treatments, the way we approach and treat symptoms of mental illness – and it would change the way we view mental health policy.