The one overlooked factor in the Isla Vista slayings

The recent shootings at the University of California, Santa Barbara have, once again, brought attention to the epidemic of gun-related violence that grips our nation and seems to be creating a new reality in which we live. A great deal of attention has been paid to the mental illness of the shooter. It is clear that in spite of the now-familiar scenario of individuals who are suffering from mental illness and perpetrating these heinous acts, our awareness of how to detect the severity of their disturbance is still lacking. To the extent that warning signs existed, the system nevertheless failed to provide adequate intervention, resulting in yet another tragedy.

Most people living with mental illness are able to manage their challenges and lead healthy lives. As with any illness, early detection and treatment can be very effective. It is an illness that can easily be masked not only because of the coping skills of the person who is mentally ill, but also because of the accommodations that the family and community provide. Often, what is a quirk or peculiarity is more likely than not a symptom of a much greater issue that needs professional attention.

I’m not advocating undue caution or a rush to treatment for every odd behavior. Fostering awareness of mental illness symptoms and encouraging a caring, supportive attitude toward those experiencing mental illness can go a long way in helping to stem the violence that we regularly witness. The greatest deterrent to creating healthy communities where all people are cared for is indifference. The shootings in Santa Barbara this weekend remind us that none of us can afford to look the other way.

Mental illness left untreated can be deadly. More often than not, the violence is self-inflicted and not oriented to others. However, in a society where violence is ubiquitous and where fire arms are readily available, it is no wonder that such horrific incidents have become commonplace.

Some suggest that the solution is gun control.  It is hard to imagine that curtailing the ease of access to guns would not considerably mitigate such violence. Given the incredible lack of political will to effectively address this issue, a solution must nevertheless be developed. Without becoming paranoid, we need to increase our awareness of the symptoms of mental illness and develop a much more supportive environment in our homes, schools, workplaces, and institutions to identify individuals who may be displaying indicators of mental illness. We need to eliminate the stigma of being treated for mental illness, provide greater access to care, and accommodate people during treatment without jeopardizing their well-being.  We may not be able to control access to deadly weapons, but we certainly can nurture caring communities dedicated to the well-being of all its members.

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