By Lori Stevic-Rust
I would venture to guess that all of you have strong thoughts about mental health and perhaps even stronger thoughts and opinions about gun control. But when the two topics are presented together, it is nearly impossible to find individuals who feel neutral about the subject—it evokes our emotional brain, and logic seems to sit silent. It has become nearly impossible to engage in a morally courageous conversation about the complexity of these issues — to push through our biases and step around our indifference and then roll up our sleeves to create opportunities to change our current situation of increasing violence and gun deaths. It is much easier to simply be right.
In the field of psychology, we refer to mental shortcuts in decision-making as heuristics. They are the simple rules that we default to when forming complex opinions or judgments. These shortcuts usually involve focusing on only one aspect of a problem while ignoring the others. It is easier for the brain to process this way. This strategy can be very useful if you are a firefighter entering a burning building and need to rely on intuitive thinking based on recognition from experiences that are stored in memory and then react quickly.
However, most of our cognitive decisions and opinions are based on something called affect heuristics, in which decisions and judgments are guided by feelings rather than deliberation and reasoning. The Nobel Prize winner in economics, Daniel Kahneman, describes how our brain jumps to conclusions based on our feelings of like or dislike at the expense of using deliberation and reasoning. Politicians and marketers rely on this to sway our thinking.
Consider that when we use the term mental illness, a variety of images, ideas, and beliefs are conjured up — perhaps it conjures up an image of a certain race, gender, religion or age. Maybe a visual of somebody who is unkempt in appearance or intellectually dull. In fact, when asked to identify the mentally ill individual from a list of pictures, rarely is the white, middle-aged male dressed in a suit with an attractive appearance identified as the person suffering from a mental illness. This is our bias in active operation, and from that perspective we formulate ideas, opinions, and decisions. We believe we know what the broad description of mental illness looks like and can predict how those individuals will behave.
Similarly, when the words “gun control” are used, an emotional reaction is evoked, followed by phrases such as, “Guns don’t kill; people kill” — the iresome arguments and rants about “rights to bear arms” and frequently used phrases involving “restriction and freedoms.” Or it evokes a fear of guns and the belief that all should be banned. Gun control has devolved into a platform of for or against, not a conversation about what guns, for what purpose, and used by whom. A close examination of the gun control regulation and state laws reveals many opportunities to sell guns and make money, with few sensible restrictions to protect citizens. The issue of gun control has become so emotionally charged that rarely do we, as citizens, pause long enough to hear and know the truth. We simply react.
Unfortunately, these emotional debates only serve one purpose — to divide us as a nation into categories — for or against, liberal or conservative. We continue to debate and use this issue for personal and political gain while the death toll rises.
The facts are — mental illness is a broad category that involves everything from psychotic disorders to panic attacks, from recurrent major depression to grief reactions. Hospitalization for mental health can occur for a variety of reasons, and inpatient and outpatient treatment programs are variable. Hospitalization is not a good indicator of predicting future violent behavior, and yet it is part of the gun-regulation policy. Background checks and gun-regulation policies as they are currently written are ineffective and not based on data. To make the claim that mental illness is the reason for gun violence is to oversimplify a complex social issue. The evidence shows that a history of violent behavior, repeated exposure to violence in a community, and substance abuse are better indicators of violent and impulsive behavior as opposed to the mere presence of a diagnosis of mental illness or a hospitalization. However, as they are currently written there are no limitations placed on individuals who have engaged in violent or menacing acts.
When we begin to chant about mental health reform, I am willing to sing along if we are going to address the social issues of poverty, racism, and hate that contributes to mental health problems and violent behavior. However, if mental health reform is simply used as the shining object to distract us from the real issues, then I think we need to change the channel and begin to start a real conversation about the messy and difficult challenges that we face in our communities.
The National Rifle Association is the most powerful lobbying group in Washington. If mental health is the issue and the concern, where is the money and the strength for those lobbying groups? As intelligent, well-educated, and well-informed citizens, we believe that we are usually capable of making well-informed factual decisions. However, the scientific truth of the matter is our emotional brain tends to react faster than our intellectual brain can keep up. We may save more lives by quietly listening to our bias, slowing down our impulsive and reactive brain, and finding our moral courage to address these issues. Gun control and mental illness have become like religion and politics — nobody wants to get into those ugly discussions — least of all politicians who want to remain in office.
As long as impulsive and angry individuals can readily access high-powered weapons, which they can under the current regulations, and with all the loopholes built into the laws, mass killings will continue to rise. The question is are we strong enough and brave enough to use our voices and our votes to face these realities. It is easy to say, “My thoughts and prayers are with you.” The hard words are, “I promise to stand up and try to make a difference.”
Lori Stevic-Rust, Ph.D., is the owner of Stevic-Rust and Associates, a Willoughby-based practice that educates healthcare consumers through television, radio, print ads, books, and national speaking engagements. She is also a national consultant for Artower Advisory. CBC readers can forward questions or inquiries to her at email@example.com. Her website is doctorlori.net and her Twitter handle is @drlorimindbody.