12/20/2012 09:31 pm ET Updated Feb 19, 2013

Sandy Hook Elementary School -- Why Guns Shouldn't Dominate the Debate

Our nation has had a heartbreaking few days. The tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School has left Connecticut, the United States and the world overcome with grief. As the nation struggles to provide solutions amid this latest instance of death and destruction, gun control has dominated our discourse. But I propose we focus on the person holding the gun, not just the gun itself. Mental illness can't be taboo any longer.

Sandy Hook, Aurora, Columbine and other mass shootings are analyzed time and again as isolated events, but there are a few traits these tragedies typically share. One of these is mental illness in the gunman's medical history. Although nothing is confirmed yet in the Connecticut massacre, there are reports that Adam Lanza may have suffered from Asperger's, and these have taken over the media. All this speculation brings up two issues: How do we ensure that individuals who need help receive it? And in the wake of such tragedies, how do we protect mentally ill individuals from facing even more stigma than they already do?

The answer to both is integrated wellness.

Stigma follows mental illness like a shadow. Studies have shown that this stigma, whether through verbal slurs, job discrimination, or inadequate health insurance coverage, deters people from seeking out the help they need to turn their trauma into growth. With 26.2 percent of Americans suffering from mental illness each year, and 6 percent living with one classified as severe, it's time to approach this issue with compassion, humanity, and an open mind.

Stigma-free care for the mentally ill isn't about prescribing pills. It's not about getting them back to a predetermined "normal." It means taking an overarching approach to wellness that addresses an individual's needs on an emotional, physical and mental level. Treatment is offered without judgment or expectations, instead letting the individual's needs guide the process. Stigma is left at the door.

Another way to reduce stigma is simply to develop new, compassionate tools for accepting others. With kindness, empathy and good social connections to guide us, we can diminish the stigma and approach others with a non-judgmental, understanding heart. You'll be surprised how many problems this new approach to acceptance will solve.

A perfect mental health system won't prevent every mass shooting from occurring, and neither will the most stringent gun control laws in the world. But by working together to reduce the stigma toward mentally ill individuals, we can give people the treatment and acceptance they need. And that will make the world a safer, happier place for all of us.