The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.
- Oliver Wendell Holmes
I’m a New Yorker, specifically a Brooklynite. I have mental health issues, specifically anxiety and depression.
And I support New York’s new gun laws…to a point.
At first read, the mental health provisions of the laws made me extremely nervous. Alarm bells sounded as I read a New York Times article that outlined a new mental health provision.
The most significant new proposal would require mental health professionals to report to local mental health officials when they believe that patients are likely to harm themselves or others. Law enforcement would then be authorized to confiscate any firearm owned by a dangerous patient.
First, I panicked. “I’m going to be on a list. Oh no, I’m not going to let that happen.”
Then, the Oliver Wendell Holmes quote ran through my head. My right to confidentiality ends when it affects others. It’s important to note here that my inclinations are suicidal, never homicidal, so when I talk about affecting others I talk about the effects of a suicide on others. Regardless, the principle stands – your right to confidentiality ends when you put in play the wellbeing of others.
The article later quotes Dr. Paul S. Appelbaum, the director of the Division of Law, Ethics, and Psychiatry at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, who said,
The prospect of being reported to the local authorities, even if they do not have weapons, may be enough to discourage patients with suicidal or homicidal thoughts from seeking treatment or from being honest about their impulses.
I agree completely with Dr. Appelbaum. Initially I thought,“Surely, I’m to going to stop talking about suicidal thoughts and never mention them to new medical professionals.” Then I stopped and thought, “You were a political science major. You know the law has grey areas.”
Like many other things, the breach in confidentiality hinges upon the therapeutic relationship – I trust my therapist and I think she knows I would never harm another person, and, despite my suicidal thoughts, am unlikely to harm myself. We’ve discussed my suicidal ideation and there were no negative consequences. Plus, I don’t own weapons. There is no need to break confidentiality.
If this this situation changes, clearly I’ve lost touch with reality and reporting me to “local mental health officials” (whoever they are) is the right thing to do. For those like me, those who classify themselves on the mild end of the mental health spectrum, the law is a no-brainer.
However, for those with homicidal ideation and/or serious suicidal ideation, especially those who have yet to seek treatment, they might be discouraged. The idea of potentially being on a list of mentally ill is abhorrent. The idea of police officers entering your home to remove firearms is intrusive. It is definitely enough to prevent someone from disclosing.
For these cases, it’s up to us, the public, to continue the mental health conversation. We need to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness so people feel less shameful about seeking treatment. We need to make it clear that having a mental health issue is no different from having a physical health issue, and that there is no shame in seeking treatment.
Anyone should feel as comfortable saying to their doctor, “I’m having terrible violent thoughts and need help” as they are saying, “I’m having terrible headaches and need help.”
Yes, I support New York’s new gun laws, but it’s not solely in the hands of the government to make these new provisions work. We need to work together. We need to all change a little, to be more honest about mental health, to personally promote safety. Nothing will change unless we change.