When Terri Schiavo was is in the headlines, the public and political debate was focused on who has the right to determine her quality and wishes of life. The focus was not on the reason why she was in the vegetative state — because of her mental health.  Terri suffered from bulimia.  In 2005, I wrote about how Terri never got the treatment she needed, which is why she ended up in a coma.

Today with our country facing a horrendous tragedy in Arizona, our public and political debate is focused on divisive and violent political rhetoric, no doubt a huge problem.  Gun violence and laws are beginning to be debated on TV and online.  But mental illness and the laws that need to be strengthened so people are healthy and getting the treatment they need are being largely ignored.

Not having access to treatment or not getting treatment is not an excuse for violence. There is no excuse for the violent attacks that took place in Arizona.  We have no idea if anything could have prevented the murders in Arizona.  As a nation, this is a time to reflect and then see where we need solutions to the problems we are facing.

Action: Sign the petition that Progress Now and the Coalition to End Gun Violence have on Change.org.  While the petition does not address mental health, you can help us figure out the best way to also start addressing this concern in our state and nation.

Jon Stewart had it right a few days ago — our political environment is toxic and our political rhetoric needs to be tied to reality.  When you have groups and political leaders using calls to action as calls to pick up arms, we have a problem that we need to fix.  That does not mean that Palin’s crosshairs or, closer to home, Fahleson’s bulls-eye caused or will cause violence.  Plenty of people visit these sites and commit no acts of violence.  The bottom line is those symbols are wrong and there is no place for that imagery in our politics.  

Beyond that, there is something much bigger that we can all do together: call for stronger gun laws, stronger mental health laws and civil political discourse.  

We can’t even seem to have a sensible discussion of gun laws without an immediate backlash that calls individuals who want reform weak or reminders that we have a right to carry a gun as Americans.  The famous “guns do not kill people, people kill people” line comes out pretty fast. 

We also can’t have a sensible discussion about mental health.  It seems to immediately go to “those crazy people need to be locked up.”  Or conversations about how you can’t make excuses for “crazy” people and they just need to shake whatever problems they have off and move on.

Part of the civil dialogue means figuring out where the problems are with current gun laws and current treatment options.  Lawmakers in DC are beginning to do this now. We must also do this on a local and state level.  

We cannot ignore the fact that Omaha is seeing increased gun violence year after year.  We lost a school Vice Principal this month because of gun violence and potentially from mental health issues as well.  The violent Westroads shootings was a tragedy that shook Omaha and all of Nebraska.

The system of treating mental illness in our state is broken.  We have defunded local facilities which are needed.  You simply cannot treat everyone in an out-patient or group home setting.  Some Nebraskans struggling with eating disorders, severe depression or schizophrenia often need in-patient and long-term treatment.  A week in a medical hospital with follow-up visits to a therapist is not a quality treatment plan or comprehensive system for mental illness.  

We can not prevent gun violence by arming more people.

We can not prevent violence by someone with mental illness by stereotyping them.

One common sense reform to gun laws means the public not having access to high-capacity clips, that were once banned, and guns that can fire 30 rounds in seconds.  Another one would be requiring (right now it’s voluntary) states to put in 100% of all felons and individuals that have been adjudicated with a mental illness by the state or doctor to the FBI database that gun stores check.  Right now the numbers are all over the place, especially when it comes to mental illness. Numbers from various reports vary, but roughly only 20% of the mental illness records are in the database.

A common sense reform to mental health laws is a system that provides short and long term treatment for individuals that is affordable and accessible in all communities.  Mental Healthy Parity was a beginning to making this a reality, but we still have a very long way to go.

Owning a gun is a right in our country. So is being safe.  So is getting treatment for mental illness.  

How do we as citizens and elected officials ensure our rights are protected and at the same time find solutions to problems while being civil with each other all at the same time?  

How do we close as many holes in our broken system as possible knowing that, yes bad people will still do bad things, but that does not give us a reason to say we are doing everything we can, because right now we are not.

We will all be watching President Obama tonight when he speaks at the memorial in Arizona (7pm CT).  We will be watching as our state senators and Governor assess what changes we need in laws and civil discourse. 

We are also watching ourselves since it is the strength of citizens that make our country and our state great.  

And in that spirit, we call upon leaders in our state in progressive, moderate and conservative groups to join Bold Nebraska in planning a meeting on what we can do to have civil discourse in politics and with the issues that face our state.  Our door is open, anyone who would like to help plan this meeting, please email us at info@boldnebraska.org.

Action: Sign the petition that Progress Now and the Coalition to End Gun Violence have on Change.org.  While the petition does not address mental health, you can help us figure out the best way to also start addressing this concern in our state and nation.

More info:

NAMIa national group advocating for ending the stigma of mental illness and ensuring families and those in recovery have a place to turn for advocacy and research.

Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a national group focused on local and state laws.  Three Nebraska Mayors belong to this group: Mayors Beutler, Suttle and Groesser.

Coalition to End Gun Violencea national group focused on advocacy and gun safety policy.