Better Mental Healthcare Is Key to Preventing Mass Gun Violence

Our inability to identify and treat mental illness will only mean more deadly incidents.

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Jennifer Buss, PhD, Patrick Cheetham, Robert Hummel, PhD, Kathryn Schiller-Wurster, and Michael Swetnam make up the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies' Center for Revolutionary Scientific Thought. The Center develops new ideas about the future directions of science and technology, formulates strategies on how to achieve revolutionary gains in that field, provides a forum to discuss the associated political, ethical, legal, and social issues, and informs the public and policymakers to solve vital societal problems.

In December we added Adam Lanza to a long string of mentally ill young men alleged to have committed horrific acts of violence. Before him came Jared Lee Loughner. James Holmes. Anders Behring Breivik. At Virginia Tech, there was Seung-Hui Cho. The Unabomber. In 2012 there were 16 mass violence incidents where victims were indiscriminately killed in the United States. Why do these mass attack events seem to be happening with increasing frequency? What is the root cause? And what can be done?

These events keep happening because they are the product of people with severe mental illness in need of treatment. Whether induced by genetics or the environment they are in need of our best available remedies. And, in the most severe cases, they need treatment because we need to protect our society.

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We can limit access to firearms and other weapons. We can attempt to increase security at places where people congregate, especially schools. These actions might prevent some incidents, but they only address contributing factors. The root cause is mental illness. Our inability to identify and treat those with severe forms of mental illness that can result in extreme violence or horrific mass murder means that we will see a continuation of these events. Unless we address mental illness, these events will continue and probably get horribly worse. Technology advances will ultimately provide the perpetrators of these attacks with yet more lethal tools. Horrific crimes will continue despite our attempts to reduce the amplifying factors through gun control, increased security, or other efforts.

It is time that the country considers a healthcare regime that provides and mandates treatment of those affected by diseases of the mind. The pain inflicted by these individuals goes beyond their victims, affecting siblings, parents, classmates, and others in ways that caused untold pain and harm. There are always signs in advance, and violent acts are the culmination of many failures of treatment or intervention. Precursors to violence are often dismissed, group homes ban the severe cases, and those on the street or in isolation get worse. Often, acquaintances and family members witness signs of trouble and the individual may have even sought help, but the mental health system, as it stands today, cannot cope, and does not provide nor mandate the help and treatment these unfortunate and mentally diseased individuals need.

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The nation has a long history of deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill and attempts at reintegration. While this is effective for some, it is unrealistic to hope that all mentally ill individuals can be successfully treated and rehabilitated with our current levels of care. We know that the panoply of diseases that are characteristic of schizophrenia occur in roughly one per hundred people, worldwide, and that a percentage of those people develop psychoses that make functioning in society nearly impossible without constant and regular medical attention. Sadly, a cure that restores these people to normal health does not, at this time, exist. We should view advanced and aggressive treatment of mental disease as important to our security and society as Department of Defense and Homeland Security funding.

Science is progressing in ways that might allow us to identify, in advance, those who might commit extreme acts of violence. Neurotechnology and genetic analyses are among the technologies that might provide warning of proclivities to violence. The same advances in science may ultimately give us an ability to treat these individuals. Until then, it is in the interest of society to do the best we can to identify and provide the most advanced and aggressive treatment we can to those who would disrupt their families and their communities and our lives. The result would not only be a great reduction in the incidence of mass murder attacks, but a reduction in the burden to the families and communities that are today dealing on an individual basis with the supremely difficult task of caring for the mentally ill. The specialized care and appropriate treatment for these people requires policies, personnel, and facilities that go well beyond the current resources.