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How do mental illness and violence intersect?

GREENFIELD — Building community and offering support to people who don’t feel connected to their school or their neighbors is a better solution to gun violence than committing them because they are considered “different,” a half-dozen people told the town’s Human Rights Commission on Monday night.

That came after Chairman Lewis Metaxas announced the commission would be discussing a bill filed by state Rep. Kay Khan to establish assisted outpatient treatment for people with what are considered severe mental disorders, including schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, formerly known as manic depressive disorder, in the state.

Metaxas said before Monday’s meeting that he wanted the commission, at some point, to make a recommendation on whether to support the bill. Bringing the bill to the commission’s attention, he said, was in reaction to the December massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.

Commission member Penny Ricketts started the discussion by saying she doesn’t believe it’s always the person who people are most worried about, but the “quiet ones who slip through the cracks,” who end up in trouble.

“People always say they didn’t see it coming, but it’s that people ignore when someone is in trouble,” said Ryan Hilary, whose comment triggered more than an hour and a half of conversation about how a formal diagnosis of mental illness does not necessarily predict who will commit a mass shooting and who will not do so.

“You have experts in the room,” said Sera Davidow of Western Massachusetts Recovery Learning Center at 74 Federal St. “People, including myself, have been diagnosed and hospitalized against their will. One of the biggest myths is that a mental illness diagnosis is connected to violence.”

Davidow, along with a handful of others who have been diagnosed with mental illnesses, as well as Joan Featherman, a local psychologist who formerly served as the commission’s chairwoman and who is one of the co-founders of New England Learning Center for Women in Transition, said human rights groups, individuals, towns, schools and others must begin talking about how to help people at risk, instead of stigmatizing them with a diagnosis.

“It’s convenient to diagnose someone who does something like (Adam Lanza) did, because we all want an explanation to why it happened.”

Davidow said forcing someone to take medication or into court-ordered treatment doesn’t always work and could create more problems down the road.

“Families need support,” said Featherman, who said labeling someone, rather than helping them seek the services they need, can cause more damage in the end.

Jack Bonsignore said, for instance, many children and adults turn violent after being bullied for years. He said schools, parents and others need to step in with help for those being bullied sooner than they typically do.

Bonsignore said many times those being bullied feel “enough is enough,” and when that happens, there’s no telling what will happen next.

“We just sit back and watch it,” said Ricketts.

Featherman said preventive services are very important during a child’s educational years.

“We have to look at what support systems kids have, what skills they have, how they handle conflict resolution, and how they articulate their needs, and then we have to provide services to build those skills they are lacking,” said Featherman.

Sarah Mouser, who is also with the Western Massachusetts Recovery Learning Center in Greenfield, said she had been hospitalized without her consent and said she was surprised that the Human Rights Commission would think about supporting assisted outpatient treatment, because it takes away the rights of vulnerable individuals.

Suzanne Grimard, who works at the Green River House, which she said serves people who have been diagnosed with mental illnesses, said it’s not always the person diagnosed that carries out such a heinous act as the one at Sandy Hook, but rather the “normal” person who snaps for whatever reason.

Seven of the eight who spoke to the commission agreed that there needs to be a lot more community dialogue about gun control, mental illness, and community support, but said committing people against their will is not the answer.

Metaxas told them, as he closed the discussion, that the commission would not make any recommendations at this point. He said the commission will spend the next three months exploring the issue of gun violence and discussion what some of the solutions might be.

He said the commission will eventually present its own Gun Violence Reduction Initiative in response to a call from state and federal leaders for city and town leaders across the country to begin “community dialogues” about those issues.

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