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The NRA on Mental Illness: A Complete Lack of Understanding

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On Sunday, Dec. 23, 2012 the NBC program Meet the Press, NRA CEO and Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre repeatedly called people afflicted or suffering from mental illness who may do harm 'lunatics.' This view is so completely out of touch with what it means to be a person suffering from a mental illness that Mr. LaPierre has just made his point of view and that of the NRA irrelevant to any mental health advocacy and reform in America.

A Complete Lack of Logic

CEO LaPierre's comments on mental illness are completely devoid of any logic. Repeatedly calling someone suffering from mental illness a lunatic and getting this person off the street just doesn't make sense. It is the action that consequently defines the person as a so-called 'lunatic' or criminal. And no one is a criminal until that person commits a crime.

We all know someone who is or has suffered from mental illness or a neuro-developmental disability in one form or another. People afflicted from a mental illness are not considered a criminal until something awful happens. Otherwise, they are just a person afflicted with a mental illness. And stigmatizing someone afflicted from a mental health condition, criminal or not, as a lunatic is not only wrong, it is harmful.

Ignorance Causes Harm

Lunatic (or crazy) is not a legal, medical or psychiatric term. It is a leftover slur from an earlier time of lesser understanding.

The CEO of the NRA demonstrated how completely out of touch he is with what mental illness is and what it looks like. For example, would we call someone suffering from depression a lunatic? How about after a school shooting? If the answer is yes, then why didn't we take this person off the street and institutionalize them before such a person commit a mass shooting? If you say depression isn't serious enough, what if the condition was Generalized Anxiety Disorder, ADHD, Bipolar Disorder, or Schizophrenia? Do we civilly commit people because they have a mental health condition? What if they refuse treatment -- it is their right -- do we civilly commit someone even if they have not committed a crime?

The fact of the matter is that the NIMH estimates that approximately 45 percent of the population suffers from mental illness at some point in their life. At least 26 percent of the population suffers from mental illness in the past year.

This idea that we can suddenly round-up these so-called lunatics and the world would be a safer place is just plain ignorant.

Calling someone who suffers from a mental illness a 'lunatic' is not only insensitive and unprofessional it reflects a complete lack of understanding of what it means to be afflicted with a mental illness. Just imagine the shame and regret that a shooter afflicted with a mental illness would feel if they had the treatment and care necessary to appreciate the horror of such actions. Just imagine for a moment that of the many people in America who suffer from a mental illness, for the people who don't have adequate or even any mental health care, if these people receive treatment, they would likely live an otherwise normal life.

A mature conversation on the holes in the mental health system doesn't need to include unprofessional and ignorant terms like lunatic. No one asks to suffer from a mental illness. It is not a choice. No one reasonable thinks someone suffering from mental illness is an evil person purely based on the fact that someone suffers from a mental illness. But after the afflicted individual does something that may otherwise have been prevented, calling that person evil, a lunatic or crazy doesn't explain anything.

Living with mental illness is like living with diabetes or asthma; if you get proper treatment, you can live an otherwise normal life. The idea that there is some way to identify who may walk into a school and suddenly start shooting at children is a false sense of what the face of mental illness looks like.

Let me be absolutely clear, I am not excusing or defending the shooting of children and their school teachers. That was one of the worst atrocities in American history. It has been a tipping point. It made us realize that no one, not even 6- and 7-year-old children, are safe from horrific mass shootings. My point here is that in defending gun rights, NRA CEO LaPierre overattributed blame and demonstrated that he, and consequently the NRA, is completely out of touch with what it means to be suffering from a mental illness and have nothing of value to contribute to the conversation on mental health in America.

Paul Heroux is a State Representative-elect from Massachusetts. He previously worked as Director of Research for the Massachusetts Department of Correction, Assistant to the Commissioner of the Philadelphia Jail System, and he has a Bachelor's in Psychology from USC, a Master's in Criminology from the University of Pennsylvania and a Master's in Public Administration from Harvard. Paul can be reached at paulheroux.mpa@gmail.com.