Mayim MishegaasMayim Mishegaas

Connecting guns and mental illness

Two things I want (and don’t want) to talk about
By Mayim Bialik     Published on 10/09/2015 at 4:57 PM EDT

I want to try and be true to the purpose of this website. At the same time, I want to run from the topic I am currently trying to get my head around. It’s beyond trying to “grok” something; it’s trying to fix something and make everyone grok something the way I want them to grok it. And that’s not right, really.

Here’s what it is.

As a mom and as a liberal and as someone who knows people who have lost children in mass shootings, and as a person who also understands people’s desire to own guns, I want to talk about guns. And I don’t want to talk about guns.

As a person profoundly affected by mental illness in my family and in my circle of friends and acquaintances, and as a trained neuroscientist, I want to talk about mental illness. And I don’t want to talk about mental illness.

I want you to watch this John Oliver clip because he really hits the nail right on the head, but I also want to try to talk this out myself. At the same time, I don’t want to talk it out.


Because it’s all messy. It’s all confusing and it’s messed up and I don’t know how to fix it. I don’t want to get into fights about the 2nd Amendment, because it’s not about that. But it is. And I don’t want to make people think that people with mental illness are to blame for every shooting. Because they’re not. But it is something we have to talk about. All of it.

Guns first.

The Second Amendment of our Constitution states: “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”

According to Wikipedia, “A foundation of American political thought during the Revolutionary period was concern about political corruption and governmental tyranny.” The U.S. colonies fought the War of Independence to be free of England’s lordship over us and be a free country (“free” to decimate Native American culture and enslave other people, but that’s not the matter at hand in this post…). Anyway, when the Constitution was written in 1787 and the Bill of Rights ratified in 1791, it was very important to have arms, in case a new tyranny should arise.

I understand that it has become a cultural religion of sorts in certain parts of this country to own weapons. And I know that the NRA believes that more guns keeps “bad guys” away and that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” While it is true that people kill people and not guns, people kill people with guns in this country the way no other Western country does.

It is not the availability of guns that makes people shoot people, but the availability of guns that makes for a very messed up potential for violence. And even though you may not want to acknowledge that we have a cultural ‘trend’ of mass shootings, I’m going to just go ahead and put it bluntly: we do. Having guns available in this way doesn’t seem to be working for our society, does it? I’m sorry, gun lovers. It’s not working for America. It hasn’t worked for a long time and it’s time to just admit it. It’s not working.

Now, mental illness.

As John Oliver points out in the above clip, no one wants to talk about mental illness until a shooting happens and it is discovered that the shooter had mental illness or a history of mental health issues. Then everyone talks about mental illness like this demon that has risen from beyond. That’s not fair and it’s not accurate.

We have a staggering problem of how we manage mental illness in this country. It is our dirty little secret that we spend so little funding on mental health care and we essentially use our jails and prisons as mental health facilities. Our country executes people with mental illness. And we are shocked when people come out of prison less mentally healthy than when we put them there. Prisons are not for people with mental illness. In this country of wealth and abundance, mental health care is, by and large, reserved for the rich. And it’s disgusting.

We don’t really know anything about mental illness as a society. All we know is what we see in movies and on TV, and then we see mass shootings and blame it on mental illness. The vast majority of people who live with mental illness are not violent. It’s not a feature of mental illness to shoot people in schools. At all. People who live with mental illness, by and large, do not seek to hurt people and kill children. It’s not part of the clinical profile. There are millions of people who live with mental illness in your midst. Some are diagnosed, some are not. Violence does not necessarily indicate a diagnosis of mental illness.

When you hear that someone has taken guns and shot innocent people, chances are that person was struggling tremendously. I choose to try and have compassion for people who are struggling even though I am outraged and angry and incensed that their struggles hurt and kill people. It’s a hallmark of my decision to be a liberal, and honestly, it comes from my training as a neuroscientist.

The brain is amazing. The brain is the greatest thing to study and love and understand. My 12 years of studying neuroscience has taught me to see behavior as a spectrum. We are all a combination of chemicals and neurotransmitters running through us, helping us make decisions and love and read and feel and cook dinner and get our hearts broken, and those chemicals also govern us in ways that genetics and environment have a role in.

Almost everyone you know would fit some diagnosis, and that’s not a bad thing. Some of us function better than others, and some of us need the support of mental health professionals and other social supports to manage better. Sometimes medications are used to try to realign chemistry of the brain. Psychotherapy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can be used to literally encourage the brain to start acting and thinking differently, and this changes the chemicals in your brain, too, and can help a lot. Beyond traditional medications or talk therapy treatments, community support from friends and family can also be part of the solution.

People who are involved in shootings who we later find out had a history of mental health problems needed help. They deserved help. It is a human right to have access to mental health care. It is a human right that you be given assistance easily and in a way you can afford if you struggle and are suffering.

Mental health should not be an entitlement only for the rich. It should be a priority for our government in this country to enable all people to have access to mental health care. Period. Nothing is more important.

Let’s not confuse these horrendous shootings with mental illness. We can acknowledge that mental illness is sometimes involved, but it is our responsibility to try to make the world a place where this can’t happen again in the way it did. One way to do that is by not having guns available the way they are. Period. The other way is by learning about mental illness and supporting people, programs and organizations that seek to make mental health care a basic service in this country.

Here is a link to a brief tutorial I wrote of some mental illness diagnoses.

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