Submitted by Charlton Stanley, guest blogger
What is mental illness? It’s a hot topic in the news recently, because of proposed gun control legislation. I saw a photo yesterday of people holding up a huge sign saying, “Keep guns out of the hands of mentally ill.”
There is far more to the demonization of the mentally ill than just the firearms issue. It spills over into the Federal Aviation Administration and the Department of Transportation. It is not just guns; it is airplanes and trucks as well. This brings us to the core question of, “What is mental illness?” The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR) is the current handbook for classifying mental disorders. DSM-V is in the final stages of development and will be published in May 2013. That is only next month.
Which brings us back to the original question of what exactly is mental illness? In New York, a man’s home was raided, his Concealed Carry Permit revoked and guns confiscated because someone told the police he was taking an anti-anxiety medication. I have received emails in the past week from several friends about this issue. One of them is a vet, M→F transgendered. She is concerned about being able to renew her own Concealed Carry Permit (CCP). As a veteran and avid target-shooting hobbyist, she is well trained in gun safety and use. As a transgender woman, she is a target and prey according to FBI statistics. Hate crimes against LGBT people are at a 14-year high.
According to the DSM-IV-TR, “Gender Identity Disorder” is one of the mental illnesses. In the DSM-V, it is renamed “Gender Dysphoria.” While claiming it is not a mental illness, the fact that Gender Dysphoria is in the DSM-V in the first place makes it suspect in the eyes of many. Two days ago, she sent this excerpt from a local outlet:
The enforcement action started on March 29th when New York State Police asked the Erie County Clerk’s Office to pursue revoking the man’s pistol permit because he owned guns in violation of the mental health provision of New York’s newly enacted guns law called the SAFE ACT.
The allegation turned out to be untrue and his guns returned to him. As it turned out, the police, sua sponte, initiated the action. The only lawyer involved in the matter was the man’s own attorney.
Erie County Clerk Chris Jacobs said, “When the State Police called to tell us they made a mistake and had the wrong person…it became clear that the State did not do their job here, and now we all look foolish.”
Flaws in the mental health reporting provisions of the NY SAFE Act were blamed for the misunderstanding. The county clerk added, “Until the mental health provisions are fixed, these mistakes will continue to happen” (source: WKBW-TV)
The bigger issue is how come taking an anxiolytic prescribed by one’s family doctor disqualifying? It would be interesting to know just how many of those raiding officers, and their supervisors, are taking medication for anxiety, depression or sleep.
Is mild anxiety a reason to stigmatize someone, and possibly violate his or her civil rights? It gets better. The FAA Medical Examiner will not allow psychiatric medications for any class of Medical Certificate. If a psychiatric medication, it is an automatic disqualification. Several non-psychiatric medications are disqualifying as well. When Tagamet (cimetidine) was first released to treat ulcers and hyperacidity, it disqualified one from holding an FAA Medical Certificate in order to fly. I first heard about that from a friend who was an Aviation Medical Examiner at the time. He told me the FAA put Tagamet on the list because, “It acts on the central nervous system.”
What is mental illness? Some say it is anything that is in the DSM. However, as I have pointed out in court many times, the DSM is a handbook put together by a committee. Everyone has heard the old joke about what a committee produces: “An elephant is a mouse designed by a committee.”
The new DSM-V will be expanding the definition of ADHD. The definition of PTSD is supposed to be clarified in the final definition. Homosexuality was removed from the DSM-IV. If it was a mental illness, the why was it removed? The answer to that is simple. It is not a mental illness.
Let’s look at posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a single example of a single disorder. PTSD is classified as an anxiety spectrum disorder. Symptoms include feeling anxious, vivid dreams or memories of a traumatic event, and avoidance of situations that might remind one of the traumatic event. Those are called “triggers.” Some claim that only combat veterans can suffer PTSD. That is nonsense. The original trauma can be anything causing one to fear for their own life or safety, or that of others. No one knows how many Americans suffer from PTSD, but the NIMH estimates 7.7 million adults have diagnosable PTSD. That is about 3.5% of the population. 22% of Vietnam veterans returned with PTSD. My personal impression is that number is too low by a significant margin. Many people with PTSD have never been diagnosed. Why? Because they are afraid to talk to a doctor or clinical social worker.
How many rights should be taken from all those citizens and veterans, simply because they have PTSD?
When some of the most prominent mental health experts in the world cannot agree what mental illness diagnoses are, how are lawmakers, judges and law enforcement officers supposed to know? Is being transgendered a mental illness? How about homosexuality—oops, never mind, they took that out of the DSM-IV. There are many people with bipolar disorder walking around and you will never know it, especially if they are taking their medication. Should a person with well-controlled bipolar disorder be allowed to drive an 18 wheel truck, fly a light airplane, or own firearms?
It is interesting that the FAA has created a new class of aircraft, call Light Sport Aircraft” or LSA, which do not require an FAA medical certificate to fly. A light sport pilot may fly with a valid and current driver’s license. Glider pilots can exercise the privilege without a medical certificate.
This brings us to driver’s licenses. If a person, who is taking Xanax or some mild anti-depressant is not allowed to own firearms or fly a Cessna 172, why can they drive? An average automobile or pickup truck weighs almost two tons. They drive on two-lane roads at 55 or 60 mph. That means on a two-lane road, they are passing within two to four feet of each other with a closing speed of about 120 mph.
Just what is mental illness, and where is that bright line drawn for different activities and privileges of ownership? Think about it. Your physician has to give you a formal diagnosis in order to write a prescription for any medication. Almost any Primary Care Physician, especially family doctors, will tell you that a large percentage of their patients are receiving medications for diagnosed psychiatric conditions. The most common are depression and anxiety, either situational or endogenous.
Alcohol, in my opinion, is much more dangerous than any antidepressant or anxiolytic on the market. Yet, alcohol is legal in most areas. The individual is responsible for keeping their alcohol level under the legal limit, without any government official monitoring them. The rule for pilots is, “eight hours from bottle to throttle.” In other words, if you intend to fly, there should be at least eight hours between the last drink and flying. My rule was always 24 hours just to be on the safe side. Alcohol is involved in far more assaults, shootings, auto crashes, and suicides than any psychiatric medication I know of. That is because alcohol is a disinhibitor.
It is unfortunate that Congress saw fit to suppress data collection on firearms violence back in 1996. I see many pronouncements on violence related to firearms, but without real science, those pronouncements are meaningless. Last January, President Obama lifted the 17-year drought on data gathering. Some members of Congress and the NRA are demanding that the data not be used to promote or advocate any position on violence. Fine. That is the way data should be gathered—content neutral. That honors the null hypothesis approach to research. However the results of the data fall, it should be accessible to other researchers. It must not be buried.
Legislation and administrative rules that limit rights are already having negative effects on people with mental health issues. They do not get treatment, or ask their doctor for advice. Sometimes they lie. Sometimes a patient will show up, insist on paying cash, register under a John Doe alias, give a vacant lot as an address and use 888-88-8888 for a Social Security number. Most people who need mental health medications or treatment refuse to seek help. If anyone thinks that is a good thing, they are not paying attention.
As my father used to say, “Anybody with one eye and half-sense could have seen that one coming.”
HIPAA is supposed to keep your records private, but they are accessible with a court order. Alternately, any agency issuing a license or certificate can insist on the applicant signing a HIPAA complaint medical release form. Sign the form or you do not get your license. One must always beware the Law of Unintended Consequences.
Here are a few tidbits to chew upon. Please discuss. Where is that bright line?