Guns and the Mentally Ill

by Joseph Merlin Bowers

Every time there is a major tragedy involving guns and mental illness there is the very predictable knee-jerk reaction. A large vocal group calls for more gun control while a smaller vocal group calls for better treatment of those with serious mental illnesses. Both sides think they have the answer and attention to the other side would distract from their cause, There are, of course, some who realize we need both. What everybody seems to agree on is that guns must be kept from people with mental illness histories. This is where I throw the bullshit flag.

To deny a right (granted to all other citizens in good standing) indiscriminately to anyone who has a mental illness history is clearly ignorant and discriminatory. What galls me the most is that the same people who claim there is often recovery from serious mental illness are fine with denying guns from anybody with any history. Can we recover or not? What do you really believe?

Some states have written their laws intelligently. The wording in the statutes talks about people currently having issues. Other states and federal legislation would ban guns from anyone who had ever had issues with a brain disease.

In Wyoming years ago, I went to a sporting goods store and purchased a high powered rifle for deer and elk hunting and a shotgun for birds and small game-$700 worth. When filling out the paper work I came across a question about mental illnesses. Because a friend from work from whom I was trying to keep my past psychosis a secret was with me, I just lied.

The next day by myself I went back and asked the shop owner if he had the statute on which that question was based. He did. By my reading, because I had been in a mental hospital, I could never legally purchase, own or possess a firearm in Wyoming. The shop owner insisted it applied only to people with current psychosis which it should. I kept the guns and did a fair amount of hunting in the subsequent years. Of course I was never a threat to commit mass murder.

I have quit big game hunting but would love to hunt turkey and haven’t yet sold my shotgun. So when I moved to Colorado I tried to find out how sneaky I would have to be to do this. I was unable to find Colorado’s statute about guns and the mentally ill on line so I called the county sheriff’s office. The deputy I spoke with is sure that it’s all right for me to own a shotgun and hunt turkeys. I would feel better if I could just find that statute

But look at my case. I haven’t had a serious psychotic episode since 1987. I grew up with guns. There were high powered rifles hanging on the wall in the dinning room in the house I grew up in. In a nearby closet were two shotguns. I always knew where the ammo was. I’ve used guns all my life. I’ve had numerous gun safety and hunter safety courses. I’ve never misused  a gun. In all reality there is no living person more responsible with a firearm than I. I’m far more likely to lose it long enough to punch someone in the face than to shoot someone. That’s because it was drilled into me from early childhood that one takes on much responsibility when he picks up a gun. They are like any other power tool-they must be respected-they can not be feared.

Clearly there needs to be more restrictions on firearms. Clearly people who are psychotic and or suicidal or have a history of violent behaviour should be kept away from guns. But many people who have experienced mental illness issues are doing well now and are just as responsible as anyone else. To deny us a basic right is ignorant and discriminatory.

There is another problem I forgot to talk about when I first wrote this blog. People believe we can prevent mass murder incidents by treating and or keeping guns from people with mental illnesses, but it’s not that easy. Studies confirm that people are most likely to act out in a violent manner during their first psychotic episode. In subsequent episodes, violence is not as likely. How does one write legislation that keeps guns from first time psychotics without keeping them from everyone?

Although in the cases of many mass killers one can look back afterwards and see signs of insanity, few people first encountering madness would recognize the signs or know what to do about it if they did. It’s easy to look back and say so-and-so’s parent or teacher or someone should have seen this coming and done something. That’s not realistic. People with no personal experience often don’t know what they are seeing or what to do about it. Even when someone does, the systems in most states are so broken that it’s next to impossible to do anything constructive anyway.

Although untreated mentally ill people are more likely than the general public to commit violence, it’s still a small percentage that do. While I favor better gun control and definitely treatment for the mentally ill and believe both would help reduce the frequency of incidents, let’s not go overboard with banning guns from anyone with a mental illness history. Their are many people with some history who clearly are not a threat to anyone.

We can and we should do everything we can to reduce the number of these incidents, I just don’t think they can be totally eliminated.

We can and we should.


Should I Talk Openly About my Serious Mental Illness?

by Joseph Merlin Bowers

Some years ago, I had the great good fortune to meet Dr. Fred Frese and watch him make a speech. At one point he asked, “Should you speak out about your mental illness?”  He answered, “Yes, if you’re over 65 and retired.”

I realized that that was exactly what I was doing. I was scheduled to make a speech about my experiences with my disease later that day to that same group. I was over 65 and retired from a pretty good job. This would be the first voluntary speaking engagement of my life. I was scared to death but determined to go through with it.

In 1964 shortly after turning 17 in a state mental hospital in lower New York State, I was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. More recently I have been diagnosed as bipolar 1 with psychotic features. For more than 20 years I experienced recurring psychotic episodes. I would get very delusional and experience grandiosity. Often I would have what Dr. Frese referred to as a messiah complex. Between episodes, I was as normal as I had ever been. If you only knew me between episodes, you would never guess I suffered from a serious mental illness.

My mother also had done time in the same mental hospital. These events were never spoken of by anyone in our family. I learned early on to keep quiet about it.

Keeping it secret, however, is impossible when one continues to have episodes. Over the years relationships were damaged, jobs were lost and opportunities missed because of episodes. They always seemed to occur at just the most God-awful times. (Is there a good time for one of these?)

Despite all this, I was able to marry, earn a BS. degree and perform pretty well at a variety of jobs. In 1981 I got a good job as a lab tech at a large power plant. At that time they didn’t ask about a mental illness history in the application form or the interview. Companies hadn’t yet started doing extensive background checks or personality profiles.

On the job i kept my dark history secret from everyone. Inevitably came an episode that resulted in my signing myself into a psych ward. My secret was out.

For the first time, an episode didn’t cost me my job. The company kept me on at my lab tech job. In nearly 30 years I never got a promotion though, possibly as a result. My job performance ratings were consistently exceptional.

When I retired and my three children were grown, out of the house and pretty self sufficient, I felt it safe to get serious  about finishing a book about my experiences, among other things, trying to remember and relate just what was going on in my brain when I was psychotic. Eventually I self published this as an e-book.

Trying to promote this book got me steering a lot of conversations to the subject of mental illness. Almost always when I did this the person I was talking to would start telling me about a friend or relative with a mental illness or their own struggles with an illness or alcoholism or some such. People have been grateful to be able to speak openly without fear of judgement. Someone told me she could much better understand her sister-in-law after reading my book. People struggling with issues alone have sought help after talking with with me.

For these reasons and many, many more; I speak out at every opportunity now. I am, of course over 65 and retired. I have with my wife of more than 42 years raised our children. My friends know all about me and the bazaar sometimes dangerous things I’ve done when psychotic. They choose to remain my friends. I’ve literally got nothing to lose.

I believe it important that people realize that there are many of us successfully dealing with serious mental illnesses and leading productive rewarding lives.

People with little personal experience think of the scruffy homeless person they saw talking to no one they could see when they think of mental illness. They don’t think of people like me. They think of a Jared Lounger without realizing that he too is a victim of a badly broken system.

Many people with serious mental illnesses can live lives similar to mine given proper treatment. Virtually everyone can have the quality of his or her life improved with proper care.

The system is a terrible mess today with need of vast improvement. This will not happen so long as prejudice and discrimination are widespread. As is usually the case with prejudice and discrimination they are mostly the result of fear and ignorance. The only way to combat that is through people like me speaking out, I believe. Only when there is widespread demand for change will change occur.

So yes. I believe I should speak openly about my serious mental illness. Everyone who can do so fairly safely should do so. I don’t ask anyone to risk career or relationships, but the public  can and need be enlightened.





Is a Blood Sacrifice Really Necessary?

by Joseph Merlin Bowers

Last night I moderated a small family support group attended by three families. All three families have an adult seriously mentally ill child that they are trying desperately to help. One young lady suffers from extreme anxiety and depression. another young lady is psychotic, delusional and experiencing grandiosity.  A young man is also delusional experiencing grandiosity.

All three families are upper middle class, highly intelligent and successful. They have enough resources and desire so that one would think they could succeed in getting their children the help they need. The problem is that they are being stymied everywhere they turn by an extremely dysfunctional system.

The young lady experiencing anxiety and depression is in treatment and taking her medication. This has to date been only mildly effective. She is currently on leave from her job which she has performed quite well for some time. She is intelligent and competent, but she is afraid to go back to work. This lady gets in a place where she doesn’t believe she can do anything on her own and just wants to lie in bed covered completely by her blankets.

She has attempted suicide three times. Her mother believes that she wants to die. Even when seeming to have a good time, inside she wants to die. The mother believes that one day there will be a successful suicide attempt. To the mother there is no doubt that this girl is a danger to herself. Unfortunately most authorities have a very narrow definition of this. It sometimes seems like no one qualifies who isn’t holding a loaded, chocked pistol to their head or something of equal severity.

Before leaving the small town I lived in for many years in Wyoming, I was trying to get the local police forces involved in crises intervention training. Speaking with policemen I heard a number of stories similar to the one where a woman told the responding officer that she hadn’t committed suicide only because she had failed to find the bullets to her gun. Taken to the state mental hospital, she was released in less than twenty-four hours.

The young man experiencing grandiosity doesn’t believe he needs help. Already a felon because of his mental illness, he is in danger of being found violating his parole. Sadly going back to jail might be the best thing that could happen to him.

The lady experiencing grandiosity has been delusional for a very long time now. All the authorities know this to be true. She has been arrested and at least once put in the state hospital and stabilized. After her release she soon decided she didn’t need the meds and again became delusional. There was no support system. She wasn’t living with her parents. If she had been they wouldn’t have known what med she was supposed to take, how much or when her therapy appointments were. How is a care giver of an adult with mental illness supposed to provide adequate care?

As far as I can tell, the only people who get supported after release are those who have committed a serious crime, been found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to the state hospital. Under these circumstances they get excellence treatment usually and great support upon release.

The girl is currently in jail waiting for a hospital bed to open up. The hospital is under tremendous pressure to open up beds because there are no where near enough beds to meet the need. When this girl is admitted, if she doesn’t have an NGRI she will be kept barely long enough to stabilize and turned out with no support system in place. AOT often requires a lot of work and commitment. Sadly her father fears that she has been psychotic for so long that she may be beyond help.

He has taken to telling people that only after there has been a blood sacrifice are the necessary steps taken with the seriously mentally ill. I have to wonder if he is right. Has it really come to that?

Treating the Whole Person

Joseph Merlin Bowers

About two years ago the managing director of the community center for people in recovery from mental illnesses where I volunteer asked me to drive two hours to Denver one mourning to attend a large mental health stake holders meeting. He felt there should be at least one consumer at this meeting. It had to do with a new emphasis being insisted on and implemented by federal medicaid people to treat the whole person rather than have people with mental illnesses in one box, people with psychical ailments in another and substance abusers in still another. After all people often have multiple issues. A person with a serious mental illness may develop diabetes due to lifestyle and or medication and self medicate with one substance or another. Often it is hard to determine which came first. This new emphasis sounds on the surface altogether logical, fitting and proper.

I, however, have been a consumer of mental health services since 1964. I’ve seen this kind of thing played out over and over since then. It always results in more funding, resources and attention being diverted away from those of us with serious mental illnesses in favor of psychical aliments, addictions and people in less dire need . By serious mental illnesses I mean schizophrenia, bipolar 1, major depression and any other truly debilitating mental affliction. With limited resources there is always competing needs and demand for them sad as that may seem.

I may have been the only non-professional consumer in this large room of a couple hundred people. In the mental health industry the term stake holder refers to people who attempt to treat the mentally ill and not the mentally ill themselves.

The federal people conducting this meeting of a hundred or do informed us that the purpose was for those implementing the new emphasis to gather input and ideas from stake holders. I had opportunity to put in writing my concerns and ideas. Talking with others during breaks, the events generally seemed to be seen more as public relations efforts than honest attempts at gathering information upon which to base policy and stricture. Most of us got the impression that the feds came in knowing how they thought this should be done and that was ultimately how it would be done.

When I moved to Pueblo in November of 2014, the largest provider of mental health services was a private organization called Spanish Peaks Behavioral Health. As a result of this new emphasis, they were changing their name to Health Solutions, hiring medical doctors and creating more facilities than just those for mental illnesses. We in the mental health community were assured that these new services would be self supporting and no funding or attention would be diverted from people with mental illnesses.

About a month ago, I was informed that I was being discharged as a patient by Health Solutions. A high up corporate decision had been made to stop seeing and treating people who have third party insurance. I am retired and insured by Medicare and I have supplemental insurance through the company I retired from. I was told they would still see me if I dropped my supplemental and replaced it with Medicaid. I wouldn’t qualify for Medicaid and I told them that I could guarantee them that they would get paid even if it wound up coming out of pocket. That didn’t matter. A new corporate policy was in place. The Health Solution personnel on the ground were very upset as they were loosing a lot of patients they were invested in, but policy was policy.

I have served on a board with a couple people high up locally and got their attention. There has been or will be a meeting of them and out of town corporate mucky mucks seeking clarification and explanation. My case will be or has been discussed. The last I heard the meeting was to take place yesterday, but I have not heard what transpired. I’m not optimistic.

In a related event Health Solutions announced that they are divesting of some mental health facilities and releasing 33 mental health personnel. I just hate it when one of my negative propheseys comes true.

What Has Behavioral Health Got to do With Serious Mental Illness?

Joseph Merlin Bowers

Perhaps partly because people refrain from using the politically incorrect term “mental illness,” the term “behavioral health” is now often used by people talking about mental illness. While this term may have some applicability when discussing substance abuse it has nothing to do with any mental illness that I know anything about. I find its use when referring to my disease highly insulting. It’s insinuating that all I need do to successfully deal with my serious brain disease is modify my behavior. I wish to God it were that easy.

Mental illnesses are physical brain disorders with biological and chemical causes according to current best science consensus. Brain imaging shows differences in brain structure and function between people with and without mental illnesses. One can not fix this through simple behavior modification. I have been mostly symptom free for thirty years now through medication, developed coping skills and a strong support system consisting of professionals, friends and family. I have found an effective medication through trial and error. I have learned about precursors and triggers and ways of reacting to them. I have found an outlet and resolved personal issues and demons through writing an autobiographical book and blogging. And I have learned to openly and effectively communicate with professionals as they can’t help with the goings on in my mind of which they are unaware. Some of that may be behavior modification, but I consider it mostly acquired knowledge and maturation. Also, as with most of us, none of the rest of it could possibly have allowed the largely rewarding and productive life I have led without the medication.

There are two major schools of thought as to what causes these brain abnormalities: the trauma school and the biochemical school. There seems to be a genetic factor in mental illness and trauma certainly can cause serious mental issues. There are exceptions and problems with both explanations. I tend to think things like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression have biochemical causes while things like PTSD are caused by serious trauma. Problematically, with the former there sometimes can not be found any relative or ancestor with a similar disease and with the latter not everyone who experiences serious trauma develops PTSD or something similar. For us to truly get a handle on causes and treatments, much genome and neurological research is needed.

A substance abuser at least initially can choose not to take a potentially addictive substance. In this sense his affliction can perhaps be thought of as poor behavioral health. To end his addiction he needs to quit the substance which involves changed behavior. I think there is a lot involved in getting clean, but behavior is a major factor.

My psychotic, bizarre behavior was caused by my disease. There was never any choice involved. My behavior did not cause my disease. I don’t foresee the mental health system getting, as it needs to, much more effective in treating serious mental illness until it is thought of and referred to as serious mental illness and not behavioral health.

Combating Misnamed Stigma in All the Wrong Ways

Joseph Merlin Bowers

The word stigma literally means “mark of shame.” There is and should be no shame in having a serious mental illness. When people talk of stigma they are using a sanitized word for discrimination and prejudice.

When looking for ways to combat something, it would seem logical to look for root causes of that one wishes to combat. The major root cause of prejudice toward and discrimination of people with serious mental illnesses is bizarre, unsettling sometimes dangerous behavior caused by untreated symptoms of the illnesses. Wouldn’t it seem logical to combat the problems by getting people into prompt, effective treatment? Combat “stigma” with things like more psychiatric beds, housing assistance, job training and scholarships for people wishing to become psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers-things that might actually help people with serious mental illnesses.

Instead of investments in these kinds of things what we see over and over is money spent on largely ineffective PR “anti stigma” campaigns. By diverting funds from potentially useful purposes, well intentioned people contribute to the problem by making timely, effective treatment more difficult to come by.

Rarely is public money invested in beds, housing, job training and scholarships. Conversely, there always seems to be money available to “fight stigma” in very ineffective ways. Why is that?

A Rose by any Other Name

A Rose by Any Other Name


by Joseph Merlin Bowers

I have a friend who is a dedicated and effective advocate for people like me who have serious mental illnesses. Living in a politically correct world, she asked me once what term I would prefer when someone refers to the mentally ill. After all we are told that words matter. Perpetuating stereotypes is the cruel consequence of words like crazy, lunatic, nutcase and the like.

I spent some time trying to think of the perfect word that would be descriptive, non-derogatory and accurately portray one of us with a serious disease of the brain. After some time I came to realize that I just don’t care and I probably should not. Two quotes come to mind: Shakespeare-“A rose by any other name smells just as sweet.” Brene Brown-“Loving ourselves through the process of owning our story is the bravest thing we’ll ever do.”

Whatever word one uses to describe a serious brain disease, what matters is the image the word conveys to the listener and how that listener reacts to that image. I don’t care what you call me. I do care how you react to me and treat me.

I totally own my story. My story involves mental illness. When I went up the stairs in my house with a loaded shotgun intending to kill my grandmother, I was totally bat shit crazy. Sometime latter when in recovery, I apologized to my grandmother for scaring her badly. She said that the doctors told her that it wasn’t really me that assaulted her. That is only true in a sense. I would never have dreamed of harming  my beloved grandmother when my brain was healthy and operating normally. What I did had nothing to do with who or what I really am when healthy. But in another sense it was me. In the grip of insanity, I did what I did. It was me. It wasn’t anybody else. I can’t own my story without acknowledging that.

I belong to the biological explanation for most serious mental illnesses school of thought. I’ve seen brain scan and activity images showing physical differences in the brains of schizophrenics and people with bipolar disorders. When I first encountered this information I had two simultaneous reactions. My first was dismay. If my disease is a physical deformity what hope do I have of recovery. I can’t just change my behavior or my way of looking at things and reacting to events.


My other reaction was a feeling of liberation. My disease was not my fault. It was not my family’s fault. It was nobody’s fault!


I have friends whose stories are much harder to own than my own. Doing so requires much courage and strength. We have done things we will always regret. We wish to hell we could go back in time and undo what we did. To own our stories is necessary to put them behind us, get on with our lives and live in the now, looking to the future. We know the science of why we behaved in a manner uncharacteristic of who we really are.


We are ashamed of nothing. To react with shame to words like crazy, lunatic or nutcase is self stigmatizing. It involves buying into the fiction that having a mental illness is something to be ashamed of. What other disease of what other organ should one be ashamed of?


When I acted crazy it was because I was crazy. I would prefer to have you say I was crazy than something like “a soon to be consumer of mental health services”.

One Consumer’s Biggest Complaint With Mental Health Professionals

I have a brain disease called bipolar disorder and have often experienced psychotic features. My symptoms have often been severe and debilitating. In learning to deal with this disease well enough to live a rewarding and productive life, I have relied heavily on mental health professionals. I could never have had a decent life without a lot of help from them. I owe the profession a great debt. Yet I expect to go to my grave carrying a great deal of resentment toward the profession in general.

Although I suffered many years with recurring psychotic episodes, I have been mostly symptom free for thirty years now. I am pretty high functioning. My wife and I have been married more than 41 years now and have raised three children who all all now healthy, responsible adults. I have earned a BS degree from a major university, held down demanding jobs, performed them well and retired comfortably. I think it fair to say that I possess at least average competency and intelligence. Yet many mental health professionals I deal with treat me with infuriating condescension.

Clearly they are the “all knowing doctor” and I am the somewhat defective patient badly in need of direction from them. Thirteen years after my first institutionalization in a state mental hospital, I was told for the first time what my diagnosis was but only at my insistence. The attitude seemed to be that there was no point in telling me anything about my disease. Can you imagine never being told you have diabetes or anything about the disease?

In fairness to the profession, things are much better now. Most pros try to develop good two way relationships with their patients these days but I still encounter a very annoying degree of condescension from professionals.

Since retiring some years ago, I have become a very active advocate for the mentally ill. I am a trained NAMI connections group facilitator and In Our Own Voice presenter and I sit on the board of a community center for people in recovery from mental illnesses and represent this organization on the board of Mental Health America Pueblo.

The community center board is roughly 50% consumer and 50% professional. At least two of us consumers I would consider highly intelligent with much to offer. We get to speak up at meetings and seem to be listened too, but we both wonder if anyone really cares what we have to contribute. Most decisions are made by the same three individuals-two professionals with many years experience at the local state mental health hospital and one non-consumer with a lot of experience with non-profits. The views of the non-consumers just seem to carry more weight than those of the consumers.

I was asked to represent this organization on the board of Mental Health America Pueblo where I am the only non-professional sitting. My experience there has mostly been positive. However, a recent event perfectly illustrates the source of my frustration.

We are awarding the founder of the community center, who has suffered much of his life from debilitating mania and depression but has done some awesome things to help people just the same, the appropriately named Phoenix Award.  At last week’s board meeting I was asked by a fellow member to provide a file and picture of this man. Two days later, at a community center agenda meeting I was told that the managing director had a good picture that he would send to my email from which I could then forward it to the individual who needed it.

Later I received an e-mail from the MHAP board member asking when she would receive our submission.  I forwarded this, wrote the bio and sent it along with a request for feedback and the picture to the managing director, intending to send it to the MHAP board as soon as he returned it to me. He replied that a different MHAP board member had emailed him and he had promised to send her the bio and picture the next day. He would review what I had put together.

The following day he copied me a bio and picture he had submitted. My piece had been discarded and and a different biography was submitted in place of the one I wrote.

I don’t know if this seems like a big deal to most, but I am furious. When for more than 50 years one has been treated as just a little bit inferior and just a little bit subservient this kind of thing is grating.

This other board member from MHAP had gone  around me (even knowing that I had been asked for this material) to my organization’s leader who in turn rejected my work with no explanation. What this says to me is that I am not on the board to be a full functioning contributing member but rather as a feel good figurehead. “Oh aren’t we tolerant to allow one of these people to sit on our board.”

Maybe I’m overly sensitive but having turned 70 recently, I’m just too old to accept being marginalized and insulted.