Who Are "The Mentally Ill?"

08/10/2015 05:42 pm ET Updated Aug 10, 2015

Who are the mentally ill? The lunatics? The insane?

The reason I ask is because there seems to be this need to be afraid of them, whoever they are, ever since the awful shooting in Newtown, Conn. This is absurd.

People living with mental illness, learning disabilities, developmental disorders, intellectual disabilities and other forms of mental abnormalities are being discriminated against. With respect to the recent discourse of guns and mental illness, who exactly is the pro-gun lobby talking about when they say we have to keep the guns out of the hands of the mentally ill?

Who are the mentally ill? I don't think we know who is "the mentally ill." We all have the stereotype in our head of what a so-called crazy person looks and acts like. By all accounts from his parents, Jared Lee Loughner is a good example of who should not have had a gun. But are mentally ill people:

  • Living with depression? What if it is postpartum depression? Is it someone who no longer has depression?
  • Who once had bipolar disorder but have now recovered?
  • Who were diagnosed with ADHD as children but now are fully functioning adults?
  • With schizophrenia? Does it matter if the person is a fully functioning person living successfully with schizophrenia with no residual symptoms?
  • With autism of Asperger Syndrome? The shooter at Newtown is alleged to have autism of Asperger Syndrome. Does it matter that this was an isolated example?
  • people with an intellectual disability?
  • With PTSD? But many soldiers with PTSD had guns while in Iraq or Afghanistan.

The issue should not be if the person has or had a mental illness. That is discriminatory. The issue should be if the person is a danger to oneself or to others. There needs to be some nexus between taking away someone's Second Amendment right (or any Right) and a danger to self or others. The mere presence of a mental illness, however mental illness is defined, is not enough. There are too many fully functioning people who have or had a mental illness and who are fully functioning people.

According to the NIMH, 45 percent of the population have a mental illness in one form or another, either as a state or a trait, at some point in their life. With this being the case, if a "mental illness" now or before is the reason we automatically exclude someone from a gun, nearly half of the American population won't be allowed to exercise their Second Amendment right. I don't this the pro-gun lobby has really thought through who we are talking about when we are talking about the mentally ill.

The ratio of gun suicides to gun homicides is about two to one. With this in mind, if we assume that suicide is driven by depression, and there is some debate about that, then addressing the mental health of people who are potentially suicidal could help reduce gun offenses every year. But suicide with a gun is not what we have been talking about since Newtown; it is mass homicide with a gun.

There is also a minority of people, some of whom are mental health professionals, who dispute that mental illnesses even exist. For this minority, what seems to be mental illness is really just a psycho-social misalignment with the larger society. The solution isn't psychopharmacology; the solution is socialization. From this point of view, mental illness is irrelevant to the discussion about who to keep a gun away from.

The point here is we (society, the politicians, the news pundits, the pro-gun lobby, everyone) need to slow down this discussion on mental illness and guns a bit, and figure out what we are talking about when we say the mentally ill. We need to slow down because once we look at what is mental illness and who is the mentally ill, there are few easy answers and little people will agree on.

Paul Heroux is a State Representative from Massachusetts on the Joint Committee on Public Safety and previously on the Joint Committee Mental Health & Substance Abuse, and the Joint Committee on Children, Families & Persons with Disabilities. Paul has a Bachelor's in Psychology & Neuroscience from USC, a Master's in Crimnology from the University of Pennsylvania, and a Master's in Public Administration from Harvard. Paul can be reached at paulheroux.mpa@gmail.com.