America: More Guns or Mental Health Care?

America is again debating the issues of psychotic killers and guns. The gun control and gun freedom groups started in almost immediately. So far there is no anti mental health argument that I am aware of. (That doesn’t mean WaPo or FOX won’t feature someone arguing against it any day now.) The advocates for better mental health care in this country are appearing in isolated areas of the news. The MSM can show it has regained some sense of responsibility by picking it up and giving it more air and ink than the talked to death gun battle. My answer to that whole argument is: That’s pretty much what we’ve done, and it is just getting worse.

First let me say for those who don’t know it, I spent 11 years in Anchorage battling Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). It was an experience I would not wish on anyone, even George W Bush. What happens to the mind when the neurotransmitters are out of balance is beyond nightmares. The last winter I was there, I came entirely too close to killing both my children and myself. Like many diseases, the symptoms got worse over time. More difficult to control or cope with. I did everything that was recommended. I was on two antidepressants that I took religiously. I did 30 minutes of phototherapy every morning from September to February, riding an exercise bike in front of the light bank for the anti-depressant effects it offered. I was in counseling. I was active in my church and did a lot of soul searching. I took a trip south that last winter as my doctor had suggested for several years. As I feared, it made me worse. And when I tried to warn both my spouse and my doctor that I was suicidal, neither believed me.

I had the unbelievable benefit of the annual summer remission. Every year it was proof that this was not me and not permanent. Finally, the reality that I could just move and get past it was too obvious to keep delaying. I didn’t want to get any closer than I had to pulling those triggers. So my experience had the physiologic aspects without the emotional triggers. No one was abusing me or threatening me or my family. (Well, there were some neighbors. :roll:) I had the benefit of a wonderful childhood, a supportive family, and a college education which included many courses on psychiatry. I had job experience and training in mental illness and I had no shame about seeking help.

Can I dimly immagine what it must be like to have the emotional factors and a personality disorder to add to the physiologic nightmare? I doubt it.

The experience changed my life in many ways. I went from being a “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” Libertarian to a Democrat who believes strongly in community and “Promoting the General Welfare”. Nowhere is this more important than mental health. As a home care nurse, it was always apparent that a functioning mind could keep you independent despite severe physical limitations. And a healthy body was at horrible risk when the mind responsible for it was not functioning properly. There was also the problem of when the person’s right to be stupid, contrary and endanger their health could be over ruled by a judge. There is no discussing these issues without having Constitutional Rights arguments similar to those that come up in the gun debates.

There is no sense in arguing that we can’t afford it or it won’t work. As people who do budgeting will tell you, it isn’t that you can’t afford something. You just can’t afford everything. Regular readers here know how completely I advocate taking the scientists working on new weapons technology, along with the grant money, and applying them to constructive research.

If you honestly think we can’t do it, you haven’t paid any attention to the developments in brain research of the last decades. One of the more recent studies (I can’t find the on line source, the article was in the Denver Post) showed that after the last major period of brain development from 14-16, the brain changes a lot of structural pathways and actually destroys some of them. The abstract reasoning skills the adolescent has (finally) developed take far less mental work than the old pathways required. (If you are having trouble with your 16 – 18 year old’s eratic, irrational, etc. behavior, this could be why.) What the research revealed is that this is probably why some mental disorders such as schizophrenia surface at this time. A lot more needs to be done on this to be sure they are on the right path and what might prevent the development of psychiatric disorders during this phase of growth.

This study reinforced something that many parents learn when their children become teens. It hit me very hard when I lived through the Columbine shooting here. My son could have been a victim. He could have been a perpetrator. I really was not sure that he would never do such a thing. He had written an entry in his sophomore journal about taking an ouzi to the teachers’ cars in the school parking lot. That seemed pretty violent then. He had pushed his sister so hard one evening she broke in a 2 foot circle of sheetrock on the wall. The hunting guns and a hand gun were in a safe hidden in his closet. (Really, do you think burglers would get past the floor of a 17 year old’s bedroom to find it? Not to mention the pet snakes…)

Occasionally I write a column without recommended reading. This is not one of them. The first would be Destructive Emotions, How Can We Overcome Them? A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama narrated by Daniel Goleman (Emotional Intelligence). The merging of Buddhist theory and practice with the brightest minds in neuroscience, psychology and human development research.

The other is by John J Ratey M.D. who has ADD and written on that. A User’s Guide to the Brain explores the infinite variations on how the human brain can develop. Differences in perception, processing, awareness, etc. From the back cover:

The brain is subject to the same kind of influences and dysfunctions as other organs. Like a set of muscles, it responds to use and disuse by either growing and remaining vital or decaying, and thus, for the first time, we are learning to see mental weaknesses as physical systems in need of training and practice. The brain is a dynamic, highly sensitive yet robust system that may adapt, for better or worse, to almost any element of its environment. If we are going to set about training our brains to succeed in the world,we certainly need to learn about the various factors that can influence brain functions.

If you haven’t seen the videos on Brian Ross’ recovery from his head injuries in Iraq last year, do. It is a wonderful example of how the brain can be retaught and develop new pathways to do the work that destroyed brain tissue had done. With more research into nutrition and stem cell possibilities, there is no reason to think investing in them will not come up with some treatments and improved outcomes.

Would it cost that much to restore our physical education programs and get children into regular physical exercise they enjoy? Not necessarily competitive sports, but health promoting outlets in the multiple varieties available. Stress management could be a part of phys ed. Many of us have advocated teaching basic CPR in high school. Why not fear management and self protection? It is rather ironic that my generation was taught ‘duck and cover’ in case of a threat it would never have repelled, while this generation does it automatically – against a threat that is also uncontrolled by it.

Consider if we had spent the money we put into cholesterol drugs that are probably worthless and dangerous, into mental health research. There is a lesson here. The money goes where the demand is. If Americans start demanding more mental health care, it might become the new place to invest money.

Bookmark and Share

Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to America: More Guns or Mental Health Care?

  1. Pingback: Full coverage: Virginia Tech massacre « The No Spin Zone

  2. booboo_babies says:

    Ginny, thanks for sharing this with us. I had heard of SAD before, but had no idea how bad it really is.

  3. alrudder says:

    Here’s a catchy double entendre: “HEALTHY COMMUNITIES”. It stresses the need for health, with our party’s belief that strong communities benefits everyone.
    Banning handguns is a non-starter, most of the country’s Dems like me would oppose it.

  4. Darrell Prows says:

    I think that all of us are crazy enough at one time or another that mental illness may not look as abnormal as it should.

    Also, one thing taught in my animal behavior classes back in the sixties was that as population densities of people go up, we can expect to experience some behaviroal affects just from that. Add in the increasing complexity of society and I wonder if some people just get overwhelmed.