The Santa Clara
October 5, 2017
When I was 19, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder after having something called a manic episode–the mental health equivalent of being hit by a bus. Over the course of my recovery, across multiple hospital stays, I witnessed first-hand exactly how backwards and broken the mental health care system in this country is. I have seen mentally compromised men and women getting put back on the street after they were not able to pay for their own care. I am familiar with the plight of the undertrained, overworked social workers in inpatient facilities and outpatient programs, and I have met far too many patients who will never get the chance to lead actual lives because of inadequate care.
The massacre in Las Vegas that happened earlier this week will undoubtedly prompt a heated debate on the gun laws in this country, as it should. But I would bet that several pundits and politicians on the right are going to try to make this tragedy exclusively about mental illness. It is not the time for that conversation.
For the most part, when a tragedy like this occurs, many right wing outlets—like the NRA—try to steer the conversation away from gun control by citing other issues, the most popular of which tend to be terrorism and mental health. After the San Bernardino incident in 2015, the NRA cited Barack Obama’s “failed foreign policy” as a primary cause for the shooting. In regards to the massacre in Orlando, a spokesman for the NRA made reference to “[the] mental health system in this country that has completely and totally collapsed,” to avoid a conversation on tighter gun laws.
The NRA is not alone in the perpetuation of this trend. During the 2015 Republican primaries, many candidates pulled the exact same move. After the shooting in Oregon in 2015, Marco Rubio asserted that stricter gun laws would not help prevent mass shootings and that “the country should examine mental illness.” Chris Christie ducked the talk about guns and said that he was, “very concerned about the mental health side of [the shooting].” The majority of the other candidates in the field, including Donald Trump and Carly Fiorina, expressed similar sentiments.
Many in the GOP and the gun lobby want nothing to do with discussing any potential infringements upon the second amendment, and mental health and terrorism are powerful ways to change that conversation. However, Stephen Paddock is not believed to have ties to any terrorist organization. The GOP and the NRA know that, so mental illness is probably going to be their best bet as a means of changing the conversation.
Just to be clear, Stephen Paddock had no history of mental illness. The people around him had no idea if he might have had any kind of psychiatric disorder, and he was able to pass multiple background checks to purchase firearms.
The fact that the GOP’s interest in it most explicitly comes to light in the wake of a mass shooting really undermines their sincerity–especially when you consider recent legislation Republicans in Congress have endorsed.
There is a provision in the American Healthcare Act (“Trumpcare”) that allows states to change health plans so they do not have to cover mental health services. Another provision ends the Medicaid expansion covering adults with mental illnesses who do not usually qualify for Medicaid. On top of that, the GOP supported and passed a bill earlier this year that rolled back an Obama-era regulation making it harder for people with mental illnesses to buy guns.
In the coming weeks, do not be surprised see politicians and media personalities on TV bemoaning the abysmal state of our mental healthcare system. They will insist that it was the primary, if not the only, cause for this tragedy, and they will be effusive in saying that fixing it is one of the most pressing issues in government. Earlier this week, House Speaker Paul Ryan called mental illness a “critical ingredient” to tragedies like these and shook off questions about the aforementioned legislation that made it easier for the mentally ill to buy guns.
If the GOP focuses the dialogue on mental health, a few things could happen. It might be that absolutely nothing gets done, and mental healthcare gets put on the backburner again until the next mass shooting. It could be that some progressive mental health legislation gets passed at the local level, as was the case after the Virginia Tech massacre and Aurora, Colorado. Or maybe Congress may be able to muster a bipartisan mental healthcare reform like they did in response to the tragedy in Newtown. Something may get done, but if you really care about the mentally ill, you should be willing to openly address their issues, publicly advocate for them and work for their interests anytime, not just when it’s convenient for you politically.
At its core, this tragedy was not a product of how we treat mental healthcare in this country. Mental healthcare reform would not have prevented a man without an observable mental illness from passing multiple background checks and legally procuring the means to kill 58 people. If we could have prevented his acquisition of those weapons, we could have stopped a massacre.
Jay Fuchs is a senior communication major