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ABRAHAM: Guns in mental health hospitals could hinder recovery

Opinion Column: Code Wellness

As of Jan. 1, 2016, new legislation in Texas permits visitors to openly carry guns into state mental health hospitals. Employees and patients are prohibited from bringing or carrying firearms on hospital property. The main concern many mental health advocates have with this legislation is that allowing guns into such healthcare facilities compromises an individual’s recovery process. Firearms in these or any healthcare institution puts patients, visitors and hospital employees at risk.

The problem with this law is one of many. For some patients suffering from a mental illness and who may have experienced a traumatic event that involved guns or some other weapon, seeing a gun may cause them to relapse, have disturbing flashbacks that may increase their paranoia, anxiety and fears. How can good, high-quality patient care be delivered if a patient’s fears and anxieties are exacerbated? Take individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), schizophrenia or even paranoid delusions as examples. For some patients with PTSD, schizophrenia and/or paranoid delusions, seeing a visitor visibly carrying a gun may cause distress, and patients may believe that the visitor is “out to get them” or will harm the patient. Individuals with persecutory delusions believe that the persecutor at present or in the future will attempt to harm him or her, hence just seeing a visitor with a gun or another weapon will only heighten their fears. Escalating fear, anxiety and paranoia of individuals who are already anxious and fearful may cause unneeded problems and potentially create a dangerous situation. For example, it is not easy to reassure and calm a patient who genuinely believes that the man with the gun is not out to get him or her. In USA Today, Carrie Williams, a spokeswoman for the Department of State Health Services, said, “... while licensed visitors are legally permitted to carry (firearms) on our hospital campuses, our patients are being actively treated for psychiatric conditions, and generally it’s best not to expose them to weapons of any kind.” Yet, according to USA Today, Republican Rep. Matt Rinaldi of Texas, who voiced support for this new policy, stated, “It's the responsibility of the operators of the facilities to ensure that the patients are not around dangerous weapons.” How can we ensure that patients or hospital employees are not around dangerous weapons when there is a law that permits visitors to carry dangerous weapons into these facilities? Once again, the passing of this legislation is proof that some Texas legislators are more vested in the interest of gun holders and certain associations instead of the health and safety of others.

The stigmatization of mental illness is at the heart of this policy. The depiction of individuals with mental illness as always violent and dangerous is incorrect and ridiculous. Most of those with mental illnesses are not violent. After having a clinical rotation at a remarkable mental health facility, my colleagues and I were able to observe and talk to many diverse clients suffering from various mental illnesses from all ages. Many of these clients were kind, compassionate and hard-working individuals simply experiencing bouts of challenges and difficulties. Many individuals with PTSD, depression and other mental illnesses have experienced traumatic incidences in their lifetime. Some of these traumatic experiences include being gang raped, witnessing a brutal murder of a loved one, combat exposure, being a victim of gun violence, childhood physical and sexual abuse, natural disasters, abuse while being homeless and more. For many of these individuals, the system failed them. Society shunned them. Lack of access to treatment facilities, cost of medications, inadequate support and discrimination are just some of the challenges that these hard-working individuals experienced and continue to experience.

Proponents of this legislation may argue that the right to bear arms is a constitutional right. However, this law distinctly ignores the needs of the patient seeking treatment and help at mental health facilities. Mental health professionals are helping patients in what may be the most challenging and worst times of their lives. Nurses, physicians, respiratory therapists, social workers, counselors, pharmacists, case managers, technicians and other healthcare professionals provide care and support for both the patient and his or her family. For the health and safety of patients, allowing guns in hospitals holds the potential for hindering the recovery process.

Cilgy Abraham is a Rutgers Nursing School senior. Her column, "Code Wellness," runs on alternate Mondays.


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