Dear American Public,
As an individual who has suffered for over two decades with Bipolar 1, I share with you the same outrage and heartache you more than likely experience when learning about another incidence of gun violence in our country. I cannot imagine the deep despair and sadness that comes with losing a loved one in such a senseless tragedy. Gun violence strips away our sense of security and is another issue that divides our country.
As we struggle to understand the root causes of gun violence, many Americans are pointing fingers at people like “me”, the mentally ill. Given that most of the mentally ill are not violent and are more likely to be victims of crime, I grow weary of the stigma that grows with each passing incident. It looks like, to me, the mentally ill have become “the scapegoat” of the gun violence debate. It’s convenient to state that the mentally ill are the problem, after all, the stigma alone perpetuates fear and misunderstanding and encourages the public to doubt the credibility and stability of the mentally ill. The mentally ill are a largely misunderstood population and often those who suffer do so silently.
Ironically, the same individuals scapegoating the mentally ill as “dangerous and violent”, are the same who wish to cut funding to programs like SSDI (disability insurance), vocational rehabilitation and other programs that benefit the mentally ill. Discrimination in the workplace is common for those who struggle and as a result employment is often difficult to maintain. The government over the years has done little to decrease discriminatory practices in the workplace and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is often very slow to act, its power is limited. If the public is fearful that the “mentally ill” are violent, the government actually does very little to intervene and instead often places individuals who are struggling in very desperate situations. The point being that the mentally ill are literally pushed to their breaking point with a government that is so slow to act when providing assistance. This puts the survival of many who struggle in constant jeopardy. This is evidence again that the mentally ill do not resort to violence despite the lack of assistance and treatment available and that many are victims of violence and discrimination. There is absolutely no safety net for the persistent and severe mentally ill in our country. And yet, even with the constant struggle of living with a mental illness, most hold themselves or are held by others through difficult and trying times.
On a personal note, last year I lost my job as a Social Worker with the State of WA, DSHS. I was fired after a medical leave at the first meeting established to put accommodations in place. I was told at this meeting that I was disqualified due to my disability of Bipolar 1 and was granted no accommodations. As a result of losing my job (and other jobs related to my illness), I relapsed and have not been able to work this past year. I attempted to get on to Vocational Rehabilitation Services and was waitlisted indefinitely. I applied for SSDI and am still involved in the appeals process which has already taken nearly a year and I have received no benefits as of yet. I was told it could take another year and a half to get a hearing. If I did not have a friend to live with who was willing and able to help me, I would have lost everything by now. I would be homeless. I only have a small Aging, Blind, and Disabled monthly cash benefit of $197 and food stamps that keep me afloat currently.
I am writing this to share with you the bleak reality of many mentally ill people. My survival and livelihood was attacked by the discriminatory practices of the State of WA, DSHS, and I was denied access to employment as a result. The lack of assistance by government programs that were developed to help people in my situation have initially been denied or waitlisted. This has placed extreme stress on me when I am already struggling with a severe and persistent mental illness. If I didn’t have the same upbringing or education as I thankfully did, perhaps I might have turned “violent” due to the strain this all has caused me. The point being that the mentally ill often are put in very stressful situations that are often caused by the stigma surrounding mental illness, and yet, we usually do not “break”. I know, in time, even with my illness, I will be back on my own two feet, contributing to society and hopefully being a benefit to others. I have always enjoyed helping others, NOT harming them.
I believe mental illness can play a role in those committing crimes that are violence, but there are other factors that create the psychological makeup of someone who would commit an atrocious act on that level. It is not stemming from mental illness alone. Often the individuals who are planning violent attacks are not going to seek treatment. Therefore, tighter regulations where access to guns is difficult to obtain might be our only hope to prevent some of these incidents of gun violence.
In the end, bringing light to the issues surrounding the mentally ill is not a bad thing. I agree that we need a better system where individuals struggling have easy access to quality treatment that is affordable. There also needs to be short term disability to prevent homelessness and immediate access to vocational rehabilitation programs that provide training to ensure employment is successful. We currently have a disability insurance program that can often take up to 2-3 years to begin receiving benefits. Putting the mentally ill under that level of stress where some are forced to the streets can cause anyone depression and despair. It is unacceptable treatment towards a population that suffers to no fault of their own. Could it cause certain people to be pushed over the edge? I don’t know. I only know that as a person with a mental illness I have, at times, been pushed to the edge, but have never once physically attacked anyone.
The mentally ill have become the scapegoat for the issue of gun violence. If you are going to scapegoat the mentally ill, at least address the issues that might push them over the edge in the first place. I personally see gun violence as an issue of easy access to guns that is continually fueled by a society that has become more and more detached and less connected. I also feel that the economic disparity in our country and the increase in hate speech in social media is also a problem. Gun violence is a complicated issue and should be tackled as such. There is no easy and simple fix. It will take time, effort, and commitment to decrease gun violence in our country.
I truly hope we can work together to begin making progress in the area of gun reform. It doesn’t have to be this way. We can change, we just have to believe we can.
A concerned citizen (who happens to live with a mental illness),