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The Mind of the News

Obama has set his sights on gun control, but has he forgotten about mental health?

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President Barack Obama’s gun control measures miss the entire issue underlying the tragedies in Newtown, Conn., and Aurora, Colo., and the shooting of former Rep. Gabby Giffords in Tucson, Ariz.  

The deaths in those cities can’t be attributed to assault weapons.  They were due to untreated, under-treated or poorly treated mental illness.

Adam Lanza, James Holmes and Jared Lee Loughner had at least three things in common:  They were male (as are most perpetrators of mass killings), they suffered with severe mental illnesses (as do almost all perpetrators of mass killings, other than terrorists) and they used powerful, high-capacity weapons to destroy others.  

Of those three factors, two were beyond the control of the killers (gender and psychiatric disorders).  The third—their weapons of choice—were chosen to inflict maximal carnage.  To suggest that these mentally ill men would not have chosen other equally devastating means to inflict violence on others would seem so naïve as to suggest it is disingenuous.

Contrary to common belief, severe mental illness, even psychosis, does not render people unable to plan.  One can believe, for example, that the KGB is tracking him and that he must kill dozens of people to earn his freedom.  He can then methodically plan a strategy to do just that.  Thus, if a future mass killer found it difficult to obtain an assault weapon (which will still be available illegally and by theft), that person could certainly use the more common weapons employed in mass killings: handguns, fire, knives, poison and explosives.  

James Holmes reportedly had homemade napalm in his apartment.  Napalm.  In 2003, George Weller, suffering with dementia, killed 10 people and injured 63 using a motor vehicle.  Back in 1980, Priscilla Ford, suffering with schizophrenia, killed six people and injured 23 more by driving into them.  The deadliest school violence in U.S. history was the Bath School disaster in Michigan in 1927.  The killer, Andrew Kehoe, used homemade explosives to kill 38 children and six adults.  It’s a fair bet that Kehoe was mentally ill; prior to committing mass murder he had killed a neighbor’s dog and beaten one of his horses to death.

I believe that President Obama is not ignorant of these facts, but willfully using the tragedies in Newtown, Aurora and Tucson to achieve gun control for other reasons than preventing loss of life (reasons which seem to include an unwavering, deep psychological desire to disempower individuals and empower a central authority—“the state.”)   

If that were not the case, his press conference on gun control would have been a press conference on rebuilding the nation’s shattered mental health care system.

On Wednesday, I helped a family stop a hospital from discharging their son from an inpatient psychiatry unit—after spending about a week there.  He has been severely psychotic and stating he must kill family members.  He actually tried to kill one of them.  His outpatient appointment with a psychiatrist wouldn’t have taken place for more than a week after his discharge—if it wasn’t postponed.  

He hadn’t been evaluated by a forensic psychiatrist.  He hadn’t received psychological testing to determine if he was continuing to harbor homicidal thoughts and trying to hide them.  He hadn’t started taking injectable anti-psychotic medications, which can last a month at a time, even though he had been erratic in taking his oral medications.  And he’s one of the lucky ones:  He has a family trying to get him real help within this broken, sorry excuse for a mental health care system.  And he has insurance, although insurance companies today are more the adversaries of those folks sick with psychiatric illnesses than their allies.  They are mostly devoting themselves to how they can withhold relatively costly treatment than how they can deliver real treatment, effectively.

So why didn’t Barack Obama hold a press conference about a plan to reinvigorate mental health care in America, de-stigmatize it and empower its victims to defeat it?  How could he have so missed the target in trying to prevent mass killings, as to believe that restricting access to particular kinds of guns is the answer?  How can a man rise to the Presidency for two terms, visit the families of so many victims of mass killings and be willing to do nothing genuine to prevent them?

Dr. Keith Ablow is a psychiatrist and member of the Fox News Medical A-Team. Dr. Ablow can be reached at info@keithablow.com.