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Expert: People With Mental Illness ‘More Likely To Have Violence Done To Them Than To Inflict Harm On Others’

By Candice Leigh Helfand
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In this handout photo provided by the FBI, Aaron Alexis is shown in a photo prior to the mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard on September 16, 2013 in Washington, D.C. Authorities believe Alexis was a gunman involved in the shootings at the Navy Yard, where at least 12 people were shot and killed. (Photo by FBI via Getty Images)

In this handout photo provided by the FBI, Aaron Alexis is shown in a photo prior to the mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard on Sept. 16, 2013 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by FBI via Getty Images)

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WASHINGTON (CBSDC/AP) – The former Navy reservist who slaughtered 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard before being killed in a gun battle with police was being treated for mental problems in the weeks before the shooting rampage, but was not stripped of his security clearance, officials said Tuesday.

The motive of Aaron Alexis, 34, an information technology employee with a defense contractor, is still a mystery to investigators, but several sources speaking on the condition of anonymity claimed that Alexis had been suffering from a host of serious mental problems including paranoia and a sleep disorder, and had even been hearing voices in his head.

They additionally stated that he had been treated since August by Veterans Affairs for his mental problems.

Though the reports are preliminary, the incident has rekindled a national discussion that started not long after the deadly and horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. in which 20-year-old gunman Adam Lanza took the lives of 20 children and 6 adults before claiming his own.

Following that day, reports regarding the mental health of Lanza began to surface in much the same fashion, as various sources cited problems ranging from Asperger syndrome to sensory processing disorder. One source also made claims that Lanza was “somewhat autistic,” though autism advocates were quick to note that the disorder is a developmental problem in the brain and not, as such, a mental disability as such.

In light of the news, the call for mental health care reform – especially in regards to better funding and availability of mental health programs – could be heard from individuals and organizations alike throughout the U.S. following the elementary school attack. The call for more stringent gun control was even louder, given Lanza’s easy access to a high-powered assault rifle – a Bushmaster XM15-E2S.

Ultimately, the administration of President Barack Obama set forth legislation that, in essence, married the two issues. The gun control proposal he announced in early January included a number of potential restrictions on guns and assault weapons as well as requests for funding that would go specifically toward expanding mental health treatment programs.

Now, with rumors of Alexis’ mental health issues coming to light, the discussion for some has once again turned to the importance of affordable and high-quality treatment options for mental illnesses. Others have also become once again engaged in the ever-ongoing debate surrounding the right to bear arms.

Is the problem gun control, or is it a lack of viable, affordable options for successfully treating mental illness? Or, as some experts asserted to CBSDC, is the real issue a pervasive societal prejudice against those living with mental illnesses which clouds logic and stigmatizes a significant portion of the American populace?

One expert said that a glut of national debates focusing on both the potential mental disorders plaguing the perpetrator as well as gun rights and gun control activists alike taking to their respective soapboxes to reiterate their own agendas – combined with near-constant media coverage of those same issues – steer focus away from the real cause of these repeated tragedies.

Dr. Steven Dubovsky, who chairs the department of psychiatry at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York, asserted that “[t]he main issue here, the real problem of violence in this country and the mass killings that you see are examples of the degree … of readiness which we have in this country to resort to violent behavior.”

He cited Obama’s desire to respond to the use of chemical weapons by the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad on rebel factions as a reaffirmation of our national tendency toward violent solutions to problems and a “lowering [of] the threshold for everyone else in society [for violence.]”

“[T]here is a group of politicians who are outraged that the Syrian government dropped poison gas on its citizens. To address this, what they want to do is go bomb [them] because they feel it’s okay to blow people up, okay to shoot them, okay to drop nuclear bombs on them, but it’s not okay to gas them. We feel justified in killing people because we feel they crossed a red line,” Dubovsky, who also serves as a professor of psychology and internal medicine at the University of Colorado, said.

He added, “It’s a combination of political posturing for an easy solution to society’s problems and media attention paid to something flashy. The combination of those two things has resulted in any time you say anything that sounds like mental illness, people have the impression that all violent crimes are committed by mentally ill people, and that all or many mentally ill people are violent. Neither of those assumptions is true.”

Other key players in the mental health and health policy arenas agreed that the concept of large-scale debates regarding mental health care options following mass shootings leads to the strengthening of an already-existing and unjustified stigma against those with mental health issues.

“I think the challenge is this: if you look across all mental health disorders throughout the United States … nearly half of all adult Americans had a mental health disorder at some point,” Sherry A. Glied, the newly-appointed dean of New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, said to CBSDC. “The vast majority of those people have never engaged in anything violent.”

As well as all of those who have, at one point or another, grappled with mental illness, mental health problems presently plague over a fourth of the entire population of the U.S. According to the National Institute on Mental Health, approximately 26.2 percent of American adults ages 18 and older suffer from some form of mental illness.

Experts worry that stigma “might actually lead to people being reluctant to seek help,” as Dr. John Duby, the chair of the Mental Health Leadership Workgroup at the American Academy of Pediatrics, noted.

“[O]nly 20 to 25 percent of people who have mental health issues actually get help. Part of it is willingness, part of it is access to a supportive system, part of it is whether they are in a place where they feel comfortable going,” he said to CBSDC. “There’s a tremendous amount of work to do in order to address the needs of individuals with mental health concerns.”

He added, however, “I’m not sure there’s a single policy or program that could prevent the kind of terrible tragedy that occurred [Monday].”

Sandro Galea, the chairman of epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and an Anna Cheskis Gelman and Murray Charles Gelman Professor of Epidemiology, said that those who suffer from mental health issues are, in fact, more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators.

“Individuals with mental illnesses are much more likely to have violence done to them than to inflict harm on others,” he said. “Our proclivity is to highlight when an individual with mental illness is found to be responsible [for a crime] but the truth is that they are far more likely to suffer.”

Galea continued, “The proportion of harm to others that is brought about by people with mental illness is so vanishingly small that it is not a rationalization for mental health reform.”

Not everyone completely agreed, however.

Ronald W. Manderscheid, who serves as the executive director of the National Association of County Behavioral Health and Developmental Disability Directors, told CBSDC that he took part in a small panel that met with Vice President Joe Biden before the drafting and proposal of the Mental Health Awareness and Improvement Act in the months following the Newtown shooting.

According to him, the legislation would have provided crucial funds to train teachers in recognizing signs and symptoms of mental illness, as well as 5,000 additional mental health providers, and would afford an opportunity to help what he referred to as the “transition population … between 18 and 25 years old.”

“I know that the vice president and president heard what we said, because some of that stuff ended up in the proposed legislation,” he noted. “That legislation is languishing on the Hill and in Congress, because Congress did nothing with gun control legislation and mental health legislation was tied to it.”

Manderscheid said that he and others hope that legislation regarding mental health reform becomes untied from gun control legislation, because it is “badly needed.”

“It isn’t that we don’t have any ideas of what needs to be done, we do have those ideas. We’re having difficulty translating them into reality because of the recession, because of cutbacks in programs.”

He also specifically mentioned the need for better and more accessible care for returning veterans.

“In the olden days, the military was based upon people who were draftees. Now, everyone’s a volunteer, which is all the more reason you need to provide good care to people when they return,” he said, referencing the nearly 800,000 backlogged claims in inventory reported by the Department of Veterans Affairs, according to the Washington Post.

He added, “The United States needs to care what happens to the people who fight its wars.”

Others still felt the real issue was a national need for gun control.

Hastings Center research scholar Michael Gusmano, who is an associate professor of health policy and management at New York Medical College with adjunct appointments at both Yale University and Columbia, told CBSDC in an email that access to mental health treatment services is “a red herring in the context of gun violence.”

“The horrific U.S. statistics regarding gun deaths and injuries are not the result of poor access to mental health services,” he said. “Most gun violence is committed by people without mental illness and most of the untreated mental illness in the U.S. is not associated with a greater prevalence of violence.”

Galea also asserted that guns themselves, rather than mental illness, are to blame.

He observed, “”It is abundantly clearly that widespread availability of guns and firearms is the single biggest driver of firearm violence. What distinguishes the United States from other high-earning countries is that there are more guns available. That doesn’t mean there aren’t random bursts of violence and retaliations in other countries, but when there are no firearms available, there tends to be much less violence which causes much less human damage.”

Still, a contingent of the American public feel such measures not only intrude upon the basic rights of citizens throughout the U.S., but only facilitate incidents of mass violence and murder.

“When I first heard about the attack made by this monster, it began to really eat me up that … here we go again, another gun-free zone inviting mass murder,” Larry Pratt, the executive director of Gun Owners of America, told CBSDC. “All of our mass murders in the last 20 years have occurred in these gun-free zones. People are still stuck on the concept that, somehow, no defense is a good defense. We need to get rid of gun-free zones and empower potential victims to protect themselves by carrying firearms.”

He added, “We’re just going to see more of the same until we send a message to the criminal element that if you try [to attack], we’re going to kill you.”

On one fact experts were in accord — there is a need to address the issue in some fashion, especially given the potential consequences of such tragedies on the well-being of those affected, near or far.

“We know that people who witness extreme violence unexpectedly, a portion of them will go on to have [mental health issues]. Approximately 30 to 40 percent of people who witness violence directly have [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder]. Some cases will resolve themselves, and some will go on to have chronic symptoms unless treated,” Galea said. “We will first worry about those who are deceased and injured, but those who lived through and experienced these events are at risk of developing psychological conditions.”

The discussion continues as to what those solutions may be.

Gusmano added, “We need better access to mental health services, more and better research that will help us understand and develop treatments for mental illness we still fail to fully understand – but this is not a solution to the terrible events in DC, Sandy Hook, Columbine or any other places in which these tragedies have occurred.”

 (TM and © Copyright 2013 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2013 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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