Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Guest Blog: Guns and Mental Illness

It's been less than a week since a gunman took the lives of reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward as they reported a story for WDBJ in Roanoke, Virginia.

Parker and Ward were just the latest victims of a troubled individual with a gun, something residents of the United States have grown far too accustomed to over the years.

Columbine. Virginia Tech. Fort Hood. Aurora. Sandy Hook. Charleston.

Just when we think things can't get any worse, two young people with the best years of their lives ahead of them get shot and killed on live television. God help us.

In the aftermath of this senseless shooting, Alison Parker's father, Andy Parker, has become what CNN calls "perhaps the world's most visible advocate for gun control." In an opinion piece published in The Washington Post, Mr. Parker has vowed to do "whatever it takes" to end gun violence.

Andy Parker is on a mission. And Anne Slease is ready to help.

But wait. Who is Anne Slease?

Anne Slease has been a middle school English teacher for over 20 years. Though she's written many short stories and essays for her students, it wasn't until her own personal life took an unexpected turn that she considered writing for a broader audience. Just weeks after the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, Anne began writing about her troubled relationship with her older son, then 20, on a blog called Still Hopeful Mom. Two years earlier, the same son had walked out Anne's door, refusing to accept his mental illness.

Anne's experiences with her older son, mental illness, and guns have frustrated her. "I am not really a political being," she told me when she shared her blog post with me. "But these two issues, unfortunately, have set me off over the last few years. If our story can help someone else, it's worth it."

Which brings me to Anne's incredibly powerful guest blog. When I read it, my stomach dropped. I urge you to read it and--more importantly--share it with everybody you know. I believe it's something every American should read.

Thanks so much to Anne for reaching out to me and letting me share this with you.

An Open Letter to Mr. Andy Parker, Father of Slain Journalist Alison Parker

August 31, 2015

Dear Mr. Parker,

First, let me extend my deepest sympathies for your loss of your beloved daughter Alison. No parent should ever outlive their child, but to lose a child in this horrific way must be the worst hell on earth. Please know you and your family are in my thoughts and prayers.

I am writing in support of your mission to do "whatever it takes" to stop guns from getting into the wrong hands in our country. Mr. Parker, five years ago, a loaded handgun got into my 18 year old son's hands.

My son was an outpatient at a mental health facility being treated for what at first was diagnosed as depression. Though he'd been physically threatening to me and his younger brother, he was able to charm the intake nurses into admitting him to the day program rather than the inpatient program of this reputable facility. He was to attend sessions between 9:00am and 3:00pm Monday through Friday for three weeks. And because he had just turned 18, he was grouped with adults of various ages and diagnoses.

During this program, my son befriended a fellow patient who met him in the mental health facility's parking lot during a break one day and sold him a loaded handgun.

My son came home intending to kill himself, however, that's not what happened.

My younger son, then 13, found the gun in his older brother's room, and, thinking it was an Airsoft gun, held it up as if to shoot it. By the grace of God, my older son came into the room just at that moment and stopped him, admitting that the gun was real and that it was loaded.

Mr. Parker, my two teenage sons kept the secret of this loaded handgun in my house for several weeks. I had no idea it even existed.

Thankfully, my younger son eventually did tell me about the gun before anyone used it. Unfortunately, though, when my older son was faced with the choice of being admitted to a different, hopefully better, mental health facility as an inpatient or leaving my home for good, he chose the latter. He walked out my door on December 31, 2010.

Today, my son is in prison.

Mr. Parker, I am writing to you because I want to be sure you know our story, just one of so many stories that have not ended well in our country. It is the story of gun control as well as mental illness.

The issues are intertwined, yes. However, it is not as easy as requiring universal background checks to curb the gun violence in our country.

My son would have passed a background check. He'd never had more than a speeding ticket in his life. But Mr. Parker, remember, my son bought this gun illegally, so a background check, even if it would have flagged him, would not have been done anyway.

The heart of this matter lies so far beyond gun control itself. While I am a firm believer that we do not need the same Second Amendment that once allowed our country's citizens to protect themselves against the British so long ago, there are so many more things to consider.

First and foremost, our country's mental health care system must change. We need to identify mental illnesses sooner and much more comprehensively. American teenagers need to be educated about the signs of mental illness and what to do if they recognize them in themselves or others.

Secondly, the stigma associated with mental illness in our country must end. People need not fear what others will think of them. Mental illness occurs in one out of four adults in our country, yet people are ashamed and afraid of judgment. Years ago, people whispered the "C" word. Now they boldly announce: I have cancer. Why can't people see that mental illness is a physical illness just like diabetes or cancer? And it is treatable, very treatable, but they have to seek the treatment, thus, they have to challenge the stigma. And the three in four American adults who are not diagnosed have to end the stigma and embrace our loved ones with support rather than shame.

Finally, our insurance companies must be forced to provide proper and thorough treatment for our mentally ill population. Even if someone is brave enough to seek treatment and is diagnosed, there is no guarantee that they will receive the essential care they need.

Mr. Parker, I stand beside you in your commitment to stop gun violence. I urge you not only to advocate for legislative measures with gun laws, but also advocate for our mental health community. We need better preventative measures to identify and treat mental illness. We need more comprehensive insurance coverage for it. And we need to encourage our citizens to recognize and end its stigma.

If there is anything I can do to help you continue your mission, please let me know. You have my deepest sympathies as well as my utmost respect.


Anne Slease
Wilmington, Delaware

Anne Slease is a mental health advocate, active with her local NAMI chapter where she has spoken at events ranging from police officer trainings to candlelight vigils. She writes for the International Bipolar Foundation website as well as Amy White's website, Far From Paradise, while she still maintains her own blog, StillHopefulMom.com. She and her younger son were recently part of a documentary called Semper Est Sperare (Always Hope), a film about mental illness and its stigma by director Tim Hill. And Anne has written a young adult novel called A Brother's Oath. Loosely based on actual events, the novel tells the story of Dylan Truman, a high school freshman, who witnesses his basketball star older brother, Cole, spiral into the depths of mental illness following a serious knee injury. Dylan must decide if a brother's oath is worth keeping.

(Note: "An Open Letter to Andy Parker, Father of Slain Journalist Alison Parker" Copyright © 2015 by Anne Slease. All rights reserved. Republished with permission.)


  1. Excellent post! Until we as a nation, as a community, as people break the stigma surrounding mental illness, nothing will change! It is never as simple as passing a new law because there will always be people who will break the law. Until we get to the root of the problem, in this case mental illness, no law will prevent tragedies like this.

    If this person wasn't able to buy a gun legally do you honesty think that would have stopped him from getting his hands on one illegally? Of course not, this man was mentally ill and perhaps if he received help for his issues this tragedy would not have occurred. It wasn't the first and unfortunately it won't be the last until we deal with the easy access to guns in this country AND the mental health issues that are at the root of a lot of these killings!

  2. Your blog is a true inspiration, love this post. Will start to follow you for sure.

    1. The way we and our system deals with the epidemic of mental illness and overlapping drug abuse is fundamentally flawed.
      Expecting someone with disability to make sound decision simply because they passed age 18 is wrong and at best wishful thinking. Science and research have proven that the brain is not capable of associating consequences to actions, yet we allow people with this illness be the primary decision maker about the treatment that they need and deserve. Parents are told everyday that their loved ones must wait until a serious self harm or harm to others is established (or hit rock bottom with all the potential harm and trauma associated with it) before anyone can intervene.

      If all the so called healthy minded people can not come up with a sound and comprehensive solution how can our loved ones whom are struggling make sound choices.

  3. In my opinion, a more fundamental issue is our law. Somehow, we magically think or hope when our young ones become 18 years old, we pass all the responsibilities to them. Many flaws with the having age of 18. Number 1, their sense of reasoning has not fully developed, secondly different people mature at different rate not to mention some seem never do on top of the mental disorders. I guess that's why we have laws to address this problem through punishment instead of treatment. Research has shown a better age might be 21 or even later.
    Number 2 is the fact that we expect sound choices and decisions be made by our young individuals. If they are ill or not fully grasp the consequence of their actions, then why we punish them and handcuff parents to intervene. Practically parents are shut out of the decision making process by almost all our agencies under various disguises such as privacy. We are only to dish out the money for the cost since no one else wants to pick up the tap even though they all want to have a saying as to what is the best solution since they are the so called professionals with no collective resolution and various controversies surrounding every approach. My young 22 year old daughter is inflicted with mental disorder and self medication (legal prescription and illicit drugs) and the common solution is for me to wait until she hits the rock bottom. (What a joke) I should wait and hope she endures all potential hazards to her and others and if and when she survives all that, she might come to her senses with all the damage to her body, mind and soul (letting natural consequences philosophy prevails).
    All the statistics point to a serious and comprehensive solution to mental illness which also has significant overlap with drug abuse.