No black and white when it comes to mental illness and guns

rdymond@bradenton.comFebruary 26, 2013 

BRADENTON -- Her brother is 65 and bipolar.

"You and I think 1, 2, 3, 4, while he thinks 2, 16, 8, 12," said his sister, Manatee County resident Beth Halloway. "Life is hard for him."

When he is on his medication, his world is easier, Halloway said.

But he often stops taking his medication.

Although her brother has never been prone to violence, Halloway believes he and others who have mental illnesses should be forced to take their medications.

"Their brains are broken," Halloway told an audience of 50 at the Bradenton Woman's Club attending a League of Women Voters panel discussion Monday on mental illness, gun violence and gun control, all of which became linked when a gunman shot children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in December.

The panel included Lorenzo Waiters, supervisor of the crime prevention unit of the Manatee County Sheriff's Office; Margaret Moore of the

National Alliance on Mental Illness; and Mary Ruiz, president of Manatee Glens treatment center. When the hour-long discussion was over, it was clear was that issues regarding mental illness are not black and white.

Ruiz, for example, told Holloway that although there are laws that can be used to force those with mental illnesses to take their medications, it is counter-productive to link the mentally ill and gun violence because most mentally ill people are not violent.

"The U.S. Department of Justice says only 3 percent of the violence in the U.S. can be attributed to mentally ill people," Ruiz told the audience. "So, it would seem that we are all much safer in the company of persons with a mental health diagnosis."

Waiters said the last 800 times the sheriff's office has had to assist mentally ill people, none of those 800 had a gun.

Waiters also wondered if suspects were mentally ill in two of the most horrific murders involving Manatee County residents, including a husband's alleged attack on his wife with a baseball bat and a man's shooting of his young daughter and himself in a domestic dispute.

"Who sets the mental illness bar?" Waiters said.

Moore, a Manatee County resident, said on the issue of whether the mentally ill should be forced to take medication, she can only go on experience with her son, who fell ill with paranoid schizophrenia at age 18.

"All I can tell you from my personal experience is that my son got powerful shots every two weeks and everything went up from there," Moore said.

Her son now lives independently on medication and has a job with the federal government, she said.

Ruiz believes the focus should be on alcoholand drugs.

"Violence is best predicted by a past history of violence and substance abuse," Ruiz said. "So, it would seem that limiting the availability of illegal drugs and mandating alcohol and drug treatment would do more to reduce violence in America than any constitutionally supportable regulation of firearms."

Pat Bernhart, supervisor of student services with the Manatee County School District, was not a panelist, but said she thought a dual approach could work.

"I think there is room for both controlling guns and tightening up our mental health system," Bernhart said.

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