Guns, Violence And Mental Health

Dr. Lianne Koki. Photo from Dr. Koki

President Obama has made history yet again by calling for strict and smart changes in our laws to reduce gun violence in our country.

It’s about time.

One of the key components of the president’s package is the part that deals with managing mental health.

The exact wording: “Preserve the rights of health care providers to protect their patients and communities from gun violence.”

The president seeks to clarify that no federal law prevents health care providers from warning law enforcement authorities about threats of violence.

It also makes it clear doctors and other health professionals absolutely have a right to ask about firearms in their patients’ homes and safe storage of those firearms, especially if patients show signs of certain mental illnesses or if they have a young child or mentally ill family member at home.

Mental health has been pushed to the back of our nation’s collective consciousness for way too long. It’s time we gave it a good, hard look. And we need to be better informed and more proactive so we don’t do more harm than good.

For example, immediately after the Sandy Hook tragedy, news media jumped on the rumor that the gunman might have had Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism.

Licensed psychologist Lianne Koki works with people who have Asperger’s, autism and other developmental challenges. She says it’s natural for people to seek answers immediately after a tragedy.

But, Koki says, people with little information tend to come to faulty conclusions. For example, there is absolutely no evidence that people with autism or Asperger’s are more likely to engage in planned violence.

“That’s totally not true. In fact, they are more rule-abiding and typically are victims of violence more than they are perpetrators of any kind of violent act.”

She says stereotypes are harmful, especially for people who, incorrectly, have been labeled “antisocial.”

Koki says it’s not true that people with autism or Asperger’s don’t care about other people or have no empathy: “There’s a lot of evidence that show they are very sensitive to others. In fact, it’s difficult sometimes for them to separate what they feel from what someone else feels. It’s not that they don’t feel how others feel. It’s just that it may be confusing, and they’ve learned ways to get through those kinds of stressors and confusion. And the way that they express their emotions may not be typical.”

Koki and mental health providers nationwide are urging change, look forward to change – but change that will be productive. They believe we spend too much time looking at the back end of the problem when we should be looking ahead. That means beefing up services, clarifying laws, educating the public about mental health issues and providing options for families and schools.

Koki says people with developmental disorders such as autism should not be stigmatized or feared. And people with mental health issues, whether emotional or biology-based, should be supported before problems get out of hand.

There are people who don’t have diagnoses who commit horrible acts. There is no way to look back at all the massacres and come up with one definition of a violent person. So the answer, Koki says, is to be proactive and to ask better questions:

“What are we doing to promote our relationships and mental health for everyone? We are all together in this.”

The conversation is important. I’m glad we’re finally having it.