Aurora. Newtown. Marysville. Every time there is a tragic mass shooting the topic of mental health is raised. Many believe that all mentally ill people are dangerous. However, the vast majority of people with mental illnesses are never violent.

Debunking the myths

Nevertheless, we have historically applied this non-clinical standard—danger to self or others—as a trigger to treatment for mental illnesses. This automatically associates mental illnesses with violence in our minds. But more importantly, it makes mental illnesses the only chronic conditions that, as a matter of public policy, we wait until stage 4 to treat, and then often only through incarceration.

"It is time for policymakers to start paying more attention to what we can do upstream to prevent tragedies. And it is past time to reverse our stage 4 thinking and to start acting before crises occur."

And sadly, the truth is that by the time some tragedies do occur, we learn later that the signs of distress were in fact present and often neglected for years. What we need to do is break this chain of neglect, and address mental illnesses early—long before they reach stage 4.

We don’t wait a decade to treat other serious illnesses, waiting for people to will them away, as we often do with mental illnesses.

We don’t wait until stage 4 to treat cancers or heart diseases, until symptoms have been evident for years and achieving recovery is difficult and expensive. We start before Stage 4. We begin with prevention. We promote early detection. We give immediate treatment. And we develop a plan of action to reverse the progression of the disease and promote recovery.

Addressing the symptoms 

Shouldn’t we do the same with mental illnesses? Instead of trapping ourselves in stage 4 thinking, we need to address symptoms early, identify the underlying disease and plan an appropriate course of action that also leads toward recovery and overall health.

We need to start with our children, because mental illnesses are childhood diseases—half manifest by the age of 14. And we need to think about the impact of violence in the lives of our children. Witnessing violence or experiencing trauma can lead to mental illnesses. Ignoring this is like setting a time bomb and hoping that it will never go off.

It is time for policymakers to start paying more attention to what we can do upstream to prevent tragedies. And it is past time to reverse our stage 4 thinking and to start acting before crises occur.