“Culture matters,” forensic psychiatrist Michael Welner said, especially when it comes to understanding what is in the minds of mass shooters.
The House-sponsored forum focused on the role of mental illness in mass shootings like the one last December at a school in Newtown, Conn., where 26 people died, including 20 children, who were killed by a lone gunman.
Welner said that popular culture “matters” to mental illness in the same way culture can influence physical well-being.
“We now have a national imperative against obesity because we’ve understood that eating habits have some impact on actual physical illness,” he said.
“But I will tell you, though, our fascination now -- indoctrination of a culture of young people with violence through entertainment media that are polluting the culture of this United States -- has to be dealt with the same way we dealt with the tobacco industry.”
Welner added: “The convergence of this poison – and it is a poison – on the developing minds and vulnerability is the last thing a paranoid individual who is alienated and isolated needs,” Welner said, adding that
Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.), chairman of House Energy and Commerce Committee’s sub-committee on Oversight and Investigations, held the event, which was attended by numerous other lawmakers from both sides of the aisle.
“The common factor in many mass tragedies is an underlying mental illness,” said Murphy, a psychologist who is also co-chair of House Mental Health Caucus and founding member of GOP Doctors Caucus, in his opening remarks.
“The lessons for Americans from the horrifying tragedy in Connecticut is that we had better take off our blinders and deal with such illness or we are sure to face the same problem again,” he said.
“It is not only what’s in a person’s hands that makes his act violent, it’s what is in his mind,” Murphy added.
Three parents of children with mental illness spoke at the event, including Liza Long, whose blog “I am Adam Lanza’s Mom” went viral when she posted it after the Newtown killings.
On the blog, Long wrote that she and other parents of mentally ill children face the same stigma and obstacles when trying to get them treatment. She said that her son, 13, had threatened to kill her and himself on numerous occasions.
“I’m not Adam Lanza’s mother,” Long said via video link from her home in Idaho. “I’m Michael’s mother. I love my son. But he -- and I -- and other parents and children like us need help.
“Like many children with mental disorders, my son has been diagnosed with several conditions,” Long said. “Michael has taken a cornucopia of pharmaceuticals to try to control his rages.
“We have not yet found a combination of treatments and medications to manage his condition,” Long said.
“When I asked Michael what he wanted me to say to you, he said, ‘Tell them I’m not a bad kid. Tell them I want to be well.’ ”
Two other parents, Pat Milam, whose son committed suicide, and Pete Earley, whose son has been successfully treated for his mental illness, spoke at the event.
Parents and mental health experts said that getting help for adult children is especially challenging because of differing state laws on the terms commitment and the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act or HIPAA.
The discussion included the changes in the U.S. mental health system in the 50 years since John F. Kennedy’s Community Mental Health Act led to the closing of state mental hospitals. Critics charge the law led to today’s mentally ill living on the streets or in the nation’s prisons.
“Over the past half-century, the availability of public psychiatric beds in the U.S. has decreased to 43,000 from 559,000, even as the population has increased,” E. Fuller Torrey, who was at the forum, wrote in a Dec. 18 commentary in The Wall Street Journal.
“When individuals with severe mental illnesses are hospitalized at all, they are not kept long enough to become stabilized because of the bed shortage. Many are eventually incarcerated for petty crimes or worse.
“A 2010 survey by the Treatment Advocacy Center reported that there are over three times more severely mentally ill individuals in jails and prisons than in hospitals,” Torrey, who shared a byline with his wife Doris A. Fuller, wrote. “The problem is further exacerbated by state commitment laws that impede the hospitalization of those who resist treatment.”
Rep. Murphy acknowledged the flaws in the previous approach to dealing with mental illness.
“And then, 50 years ago, we released them from hospitals for reasons we mistook for compassion,” Murphy said in his opening remarks. “Too many of them ended up on the streets without decent access to treatment.
“The majority of the mentally ill should be receiving care in the community setting, but for many with severe mental illness, de-institutionalization was a disaster, the after-effects of which we are still struggling to recover from, even today,” Murphy said. “Now, too many fill our prisons and are left as the wandering homeless.”