The recent tragedy at the Washington Navy Yard, one in a long line of shooting sprees, has highlighted the issues of mass murder, gun control and, in this case, untreated psychosis.
Readers of this column know that I was once diagnosed with schizophrenia and that I was hospitalized twice in psychiatric wards in the late 1990s.
Like the vast majority of people with severe mental illness, I have never been violent in my life. I do not own a gun, and I do not want one. The reason is not because I am a threat to anyone else. It is because I could be a threat to myself, and studies show that suicides and accidental deaths, as well as homicides, increase when someone has a gun in the household.
On Wednesday, Sept. 25, I gave a talk at USC Verdugo Hills Hospital in Glendale, Calif., a suburb of Los Angeles, on the occasion of Suicide Prevention Awareness Month.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the overall rate of suicide in this country in 2010, the most recent year for which statistics were available, was 12.1 per 100,000 people. As it turns out, 45-to-64 year olds (my age group) were the sector most likely to commit suicide, doing so at a rate of 18.6 per 100,000. Those 85 and older were the next most likely to take their lives, at a rate of 17.6 per 100,000.
USC VHH is in some respects unique in that its psych ward, known as the Stepping Stones Program, treats only "geriatric" patients, which, believe it or not, means people as young as 50 years old.
The hospital, which was recently taken over by USC, also represents a case study in the growing trend among community hospitals to seek partners and merge with larger research facilities. Mergers such as this should help smaller hospitals compete more effectively in the new era presaged by the Affordable Care Act, notwithstanding the efforts by some members of the GOP to defund Obamacare, efforts that are doomed to fail.
Before I gave my talk at USC VHH on Sept. 25, I met with Purnima Panchal, Stepping Stones' Community Education Manager. Panchal, who has an MBA as well as a Masters in Psychology and who hails from India, introduced me to 25 health care administrators, case managers and clinicians in a conference room near the lobby of the hospital.
When I spoke, I focused on my psychotic break in 1999, the more psychotic of my two episodes.
I described a harrowing, six-hour trek I took across the streets of Los Angeles, in which I feared that I might be assassinated and blamed for a series of murders sweeping the country. Fortunately, I got back on my meds at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute. That helped to stabilize me after a 72-hour hold. More importantly, from the perspective of my long-term health, I had a job as a proofreader in the newspaper business, a field I love; a compassionate and wise boss; and an angelic girlfriend, Barbara, who is now my wife.
As I have noted before, Freud was right when he said that work and love are keys to a fulfilling life.
After the discussion, one attendee asked me what signs of depression I had shown as a child. I mentioned that I had been traumatized by a few birthday parties when I was very young and that for years I was extremely reluctant to socialize with anyone my age.
Another attendee, an African-American woman, told me that there have been two suicides in her family. The stigma is so deep in her family and community that her mother still claims that her sister was killed, when in fact she killed herself.
If the stigma of mental illness and suicide remains acute for African-Americans, it is even worse for men, irrespective of their race.
Given that my talk was on "Men, Mental Illness and Suicide," it struck me as a sad yet predictable irony that only one man attended the event. More so than women, men need to gain awareness of these issues, shed their self-defeating macho attitudes, and learn that it does not make them weak if they suffer from depression, psychosis or suicidal thoughts.
That so many men refuse to discuss these problems helps to explain why men are four times more likely than women to commit suicide. As I pointed out in my last piece, men also tend to use more inherently violent methods, such as a gun, for the fatal act.
Angry people and those with severe mental illness have been with us since the beginning of time and will always exist on this planet. We will never be able to legislate away anger or mental illness.
What we can do, though, is make it much more difficult for anyone, angry or not, mentally ill or otherwise, to obtain guns in this country.
And if a person has a history of serious mental illness, that person should be barred from owning a firearm. Once again, the primary reason for this is the threat of suicide, not homicide. The vast majority of those with severe mental illness are never a threat to anyone but themselves.