As the gun control debate wages across the country, David Lauterbach is worried linking violence to mental illness will only cause more pain.
“There are hundreds and hundreds of people who should be seeking treatment, but aren’t,” said Lauterbach, president and CEO of The Kent Center in Warwick. “Linking violence to mental health issues will only deter people from getting the help they need.”
Last week, Governor Lincoln Chafee, Speaker Gordon Fox, Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed and other law enforcement officials announced a nine-bill package addressing gun control; one of the bills would create a task force to address the connection between guns and mental illness.
Lauterbach says the creation of a task force of legislators, mental health professionals and law enforcement was the correct step for the state. “It is a complicated issue that needs to be looked at.”
As a professional in the mental health field, Lauterbach says there are many issues when it comes to creating a link between gun violence and those suffering from varying degrees of mental illness.
“You certainly don’t want to put up a barrier for those who need to seek help,” said Lauterbach, explaining that individuals with a mental illness may not seek treatment for fear that it would affect their future ability to exercise second amendment rights. “You also don’t want to make the assumption that all those suffering from mental illness are dangerous.”
As an example, Lauterbach cited his work with veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan who are suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). He said these soldiers are going through “a normal reaction to an abnormal situation.”
“Many of them think they will be thought less worthy as a soldier,” said Lauterbach.
The biggest concern Lauterbach has is that legislation addressing mental illness and gun ownership will deter individuals from seeking treatment for fear of stigma. He feels appropriate legislation would focus on keeping guns away from individuals who were involuntarily committed for psychiatric reasons, as opposed to umbrella legislation barring all those who suffer from mental illness from owning guns.
“I think the criteria may be those who have been involuntarily committed; they were not able to make sound decisions,” said Lauterbach.
He explained that involuntarily committed individuals are often seen as a danger to themselves and to others, unlike those who may be suffering from a period of depression or anxiety due to stressful circumstances in their everyday lives.
“Someone with severe schizophrenia, who is not taking their medication, should not have access to guns,” said Lauterbach.
He also pointed out that a small percentage of individuals fall under that involuntarily committed category; many cases of mental illness can be attributed to human nature’s response to circumstances such as poverty or growing up in less than ideal conditions.
Lauterbach, who used to shoot guns as a hobby, says another concern he has is what he calls the mental health of society. He is concerned about individuals who say they need powerful weapons to protect themselves and asks why they are so frightened.
“Who do you need protection from?” said Lauterbach. “That sense that you won’t be able to protect yourself plays into fear.”
He is also concerned that criminals can get their hands on weapons that are more powerful than those carried by police officers. “What is wrong with this picture?”
Lauterbach also worries that mental illness will take center stage for the wrong reasons.
“I hope mental illness does not become the scapegoat,” he said, adding that not everyone who uses guns to commit violent crimes suffers from mental illness. While background checks can be used to look at one’s mental health, Lauterbach adds that background checks should provide histories of violence, criminal records and other crime-related topics.
Lauterbach understands society’s reaction to the string of mass shootings and the desire to connect the shooters with mental illness.
“When something bizarre happens, people tend to think ‘well something must be wrong with that person,’” said Lauterbach.
Historically, Lauterbach pointed out that Rhode Island has taken steps to properly evaluate the mental health of those who stand trial. Thirteen years ago, a clinic was set up within the court system so mental health professionals could assist judges to determine if someone was healthy and could be sent to jail or if someone needed to be sent to an institution to receive treatment.
“Judges could not determine [one’s mental health],” said Lauterbach, explaining that it is possible for a sociopath to put on a suit and act sound of mind when they truly need treatment. It is just as easy for someone to act in a manner that would send him or her to a mental institution instead of prison. “We saw people getting off who should not have.”
Now, because of the tendency to say gunmen in mass shootings suffer from mental illness, Lauterbach says the public has become the judge. This tendency, however, can play a role in further stigmatizing those seeking treatment.
Lauterbach hopes the trend can be reversed and society will encourage treatment for those who need it.
“Why does the stigma make it difficult for families to seek help?” said Lauterbach.
As a mental health professional, Lauterbach would support legislation that would keep guns away from those who can be determined by a doctor to be dangerous, but he does not want to see guns taken away from law-abiding citizens.
When asked if he thought Congress or the General Assembly in Rhode Island could come to an agreement that would address gun control without deterring individuals from seeking the treatment they need, he wasn’t sure.
“There will be heated debates between the polar extremes,” said Lauterbach. “Compromise will have to happen.”
The nine-bill gun safety package will be up for hearing later in this session.