Obama Needs to Roll Boulder for Mentally Ill

04/03/2013 09:11 pm ET Updated Jun 03, 2013

The messianic rhetoric uttered by Barack Obama when he was first running for president has faded. We no longer hear references to now being the time that the oceans stopped rising. It is a good thing for all of us to recognize our limitations as homo sapiens.

Yet last week on Good Friday, I was hoping that President Obama could roll a boulder for the mentally ill. As the president was about to announce his initiative to chart the brain and as the waves of the Pacific Ocean softly lapped up on shore 100 yards away, I attended an exhibit opening at the Laguna Gallery of Contemporary Art.

If only President Obama could have attended.

The opening was for a young artist named Julian St. John, who has schizophrenia. St. John, who I profiled recently, ended up selling several of his paintings, which meld the energetic brushstrokes of Van Gogh with the African-American imagery and text of Basquiat.

But what was most encouraging on Good Friday was St. John's corporeal presence in front of gallery attendees, who came up to him throughout the night and mentioned that they have a relative with severe mental illness.

I was standing next to St. John, when one woman told him that her daughter has tried to overdose on a few occasions. Another woman texted her brother, who replied that he takes Abilify, an anti-psychotic medication that I too take.

Then there was Christiana Lewis, an artist with an Israeli and Germanic background, an almost incongruous mixture.

Lewis, who is tan and blonde, projected an inner soulfulness to match her physical beauty. I took a look at some of her paintings online. She specializes in abstract images of females. She also has been diagnosed with Attention-Deficit Disorder and dyslexia, though she does not take medication and told me that she now reads "4,000 words a minute," a Harold Bloomian rate that was impossible to verify but that befitted a woman, whose Web site possesses an apt name, www.colorfulsouls.com.

When we read about cheating scandals in colleges and high schools and the absurd statistic that nearly 20 percent of high school boys now have a diagnosis of ADHD, we can all become cynical about mental illness. Over the years, I have written extensively about the over-diagnosis and over-medication of youth in this country. But I have also written about the humanity and imaginative assets of many of those with mental disorders, who are more likely to be creative artists than the general public.

A psychiatrist, who attended the Good Friday event, told me that she has many adolescent patients who suffer from schizophrenia. She pointed out, as I have numerous times, that schizophrenics, in addition to their artistic inclination, are also more likely to be the victims than the perpetrators of violent crime.

This was why I wished President Obama had been in attendance. I wanted him to hear all this, because while he has told us that he has not forgotten the Newtown massacre, (which some have cynically blamed on mental illness, as opposed to the ready availability of guns), he is leaving it to a gutless Congress to pass gun-control legislation.

Sadly, the Congress is unlikely to do what Connecticut legislators just did -- pass a tough law barring assault weapons and the future sale of high-capacity magazines.

Since Congress is almost assuredly going to punt on these kind of provisions in a federal gun-control package, I am still calling for President Obama to explore the possibility of issuing executive orders, something I first broached after the Aurora tragedy last July, to bar the sale of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

Such measures, had they been instituted some time ago, could have prevented Adam Lanza's mother from obtaining 30-round magazines. Without those high-capacity ammunition holders, Lanza would not have been able to kill so many children and educators.

As the Good Friday event at the Laguna Gallery of Contemporary Art spilled into the late night, Julian St. John left for his hotel room. He said that he was feeling "overwhelmed." But he returned later to sign the back of his paintings.

I could only hope that, as St. John slept on Saturday, President Obama might be able to summon the courage to descend into the underworld and proclaim his victory over the gun lobby.

Issuing executive orders banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines might be the best way of achieving that victory. And attending events such as St. John's art opening would go a long way toward decreasing the stigma surrounding those with mental illness.