Confronting Mental Illness and Guns: What Should We Do?

In my column in Pain Medicine News this month, I talked about a tragic dual suicide attempt of a married couple I knew, both of whom suffered from chronic pain. From one standpoint, a story like this is as shocking as it is incomprehensible. From another perspective, it’s becoming another sad milepost in society–not unlike the rash of gun rampages of the last few years.

The blithe acceptance of social dysfunction – whether suicide stemming from chronic pain or gun violence – is enormously disturbing to me. When social problems seem too big to solve, human beings tend to be resigned that it is part of life in our culture.

But when you consider that as many as 20 people with chronic pain commit suicide every day[1] (opioids were present in 25% of all suicide deaths in 2011) or that, since 2011, a public mass shooting occurs once every 64 days, inaction seems to be the greatest evil of them all.

With social problems as complex as suicide from chronic pain and mass gun violence, there are no easy explanations or solutions. In my view it requires rigorous study. In addition to exploring their causes, I’d argue that we also need to study why we as a society have developed such a laissez faire attitude toward social dysfunctions as abhorrent as suicide and mass gun violence. To create a change in outcome, we need to confront these illnesses as if they were life and death within our family–which they very well may be.

While I believe the parallels between suicide and mass gun violence exist, I’m a pain physician and don’t pretend to know how to address the surge in mass gun violence. What I do know as a father, husband, friend and human being is that nothing good comes of someone being alone and desperate.

While we have a long way to go to end these social and personal tragedies, we can as individuals recognize that the problem doesn’t exist elsewhere but within our own communities and families.  This could be the insight we need to bring solutions that are desperately needed.


[1] MMWR Surveill Summ. 2011;60(SS10):1-49.


My book, “The Painful Truth,” was released in September 2015.

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