NYU Institute for Public Knowledge recently hosted a panel discussion called “Triggering the Debate: Gun Control, Race and Mental Illness” to discuss core issues of the gun debate. Panelists deeply examined if new gun laws can balance the politics of mental health diagnosis, confidentiality rights and racial bias. The debate heated up with noise about the new Jim Crow system of mass incarceration, disproportionate arrests of people of color, the New York Police Department’s stop and frisk policy and fears of overdiagnosis from the pejorative changes approved for the upcoming fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual Mental Disorders.
Americans on all sides are anxious about loss of rights, guns and loved ones. I agree with Mayor Bill Finch of Bridgeport, Conn., a panelist and member of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, who said, “As important as the Second Amendment really is, all of your constitutional rights go out the window when you’re looking down the barrel of a gun.”
The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee recently approved a gun-trafficking bill. The Senate will quick-draw other comprehensive measures to reduce gun violence soon while the GOP-led House of Representatives is less eager to act first and may prefer to keep any proposed bills in their holster. While it seems like a political ploy, the National Rifle Association advocates for a strengthened mental health care system. The 113th Congress will misfire this golden opportunity if they fail to invest in the profession of social work regardless of the limited link between mental illness and gun violence.
Gun violence is heartbreaking no matter how many die or who pulls the trigger. Research indicates that only 3 to 5 percent of individuals with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or other mental disorders commit gun crime. This shows that mental illness may be a misleading part to this debate. However, estimates posit that only about 17 percent of U.S. adults are considered to be in a state of optimal mental health. We should strive to reduce such suffering. Mental health can deteriorate for any of us at any time for a plethora of reasons.
As clinicians, social workers are the largest group of mental health care providers, outnumbering psychologists and psychiatrists. They can make psychiatric diagnoses and play a large role in the treatment process. In schools, they are certified in violence prevention. Social workers empower individuals, families, groups and communities to enhance functioning and wellness. But extremely uneven ratios of client per social worker yield a shortage of supply per demand.
Justice can only be achieved with passage of the Dorothy I. Height and Whitney M. Young Social Work Reinvestment Act or its addition to any legislation to reduce gun violence. It will strengthen the mental health care system and other systems in society affected by mental disorder, poverty, substance use, gangs, gun violence, recidivism, suicide, bullying and oppression by virtue of highly skilled social workers equipped as a profession with informed research, policies and practice based on evidence and ethics.
Matthew Braman is contributing columnist. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.