Trump, Cuomo, guns and mental health

Ever since Sandy Hook in December 2012, “mental health” has become central to the post-mortem debates about the causes of and solutions to these mass school shootings. Prominent political figures as disparate as President Trump and Gov. Cuomo offer their obligatory notions about how “mental health” can be employed to keep guns out of the hands of the “mentally ill,” but they never clarify who the “mentally ill” are or what “mental health” is.

Trump follows the NRA playbook, which recommends measures more punitive than therapeutic: First, label the school shooters as “crazy”; then, to prevent more shootings, have the mental health system toss all those it identifies as meeting the school shooter profile — young, mostly white men who are angry, suspicious and authority-aversive — into long-term institutions. For all the other would-be shooters, bring more guns into the schools and put them into the hands of specially trained teachers who will shoot the shooters to bits should they ever enter a school.

Cuomo puts his faith in our mental health system, which views all persons with diagnoses of serious mental illness and non-compliant with their treatment — i.e., unmedicated — as dangerous to self and others. He would deny all those involuntarily hospitalized in acute psychiatric facilities all access to firearms by placing them on a database comparable to the NY SAFE Act’s no-gun list, customarily consulted by gun dealers when doing background checks.

The governor’s and president’s plans rely on the mistaken assumption that the public mental health system will somehow medicate or control or institutionalize the alienated loners that it identifies. It can’t and never has. The shooter “profile” is not a diagnosis but a description of socially disaffected or alienated individuals. Further, there is no psychiatric diagnosis for alienation. It’s a social condition reflective of an individual’s inability to connect with the social environment in which all our kids have to grow and learn.

If you want to help these young men before they destroy their and others’ lives, take a look at Anna Deveare Smith’s “Notes from the Field”, currently on HBO, a distillation of hundreds of interviews she did on what she terms the school-to-prison pipeline. In one scene, a school safety officer, played by Ms. Deveare, chases down a school hallway after a girl who had come out of her classroom terrified and screaming, catches her and wraps her arms around the girl until she quiets down. It’s a lesson my wife, a family therapist and psychiatric nurse practitioner of many years, teaches the parents who ask for help with children who become angry and defiant: Hold them tight and close, and reassure them they are loved and safe. The adults in the room need to stand up and take charge.

And take a look at the website put up by the Sandy Hook parents to teach others how to identify and reach out to the most isolated and shunned kids — Their message is simple and straightforward: It takes a community. All members of the Parkland community knew that Nikolas Cruz would harm or kill someone some day. Those who spoke up were not heard; not enough spoke up or listened to one another: students, teachers, administrators, Parkland residents, the Broward County sheriff’s department, the FBI.

In sum, it’s up to us to summon the fierce determination needed to reach out and touch the kids who seem untouchable, to protect them when they are most vulnerable, when they’re most resistant to be embraced and reassured. Our political leaders don’t have the capacity to do this. As the Parkland kids have been pointing out, they’re too beholden to others. To whom are we beholden or responsible to — our kids or to a me-first ideology? And whom or what do we love more — our kids or our AR-15s? Our answers will determine whether we will play an essential role in ending the killing or continue to put our children at risk.

Jack Carney, DSW (doctor of social work), lives in Long Lake.