Parkland students’ manifesto errs on privacy and emotional disabilities
A sign next door to the City Team Ministries homeless shelter in Portland, Ore., on April 9, where John Andrew Elifritz was fatally shot by police. Elifritz reportedly fled from a stolen car and burst into the shelter at the start of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting when he was confronted by police. | Alex Milan Tracy / Sipa via AP Images

The courageous and inspirational actions of the students of Parkland, Florida in the wake of the horrific and tragic mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, and their strong, dignified presence at the March for Our Lives in Washington on March 24, have justly earned praise and admiration.

One point in the Manifesto they published after the shooting, however, is a source of concern to many in the civil rights movement for persons with disabilities.

Manifesto item 4 states, “Change privacy laws to allow mental healthcare providers to communicate with law enforcement.” It is my sincere hope that they will reconsider this as they move forward together to change gun ownership laws.

One of the most fundamental aspects of the National Rifle Association’s playbook which they use after every high profile mass shooting is to immediately blame individuals with emotional illness for the crime in an effort to deflect blame from where it genuinely belongs while providing cover for the NRA’s true mission, which is increasing the profits for gun manufacturers.

In a major paper, entitled “Mental Illness, Mass Shootings and the Politics of American Firearms,” authors/doctors Jonathan M. Metzl and Kenneth T. MacLeish state in their abstract that, “notions of mental illness that emerge in relation to mass shootings frequently reflect larger cultural stereotypes and anxieties about matters such as race/ethnicity, social class, and politics. These issues become obscured when mass shootings come to stand in for all gun crime, and when “mentally ill” ceases to be a medical designation and becomes a sign of violent threat.”

The privacy law the students seek to change is the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). Prior to this law, there were instances in which an individual’s health care information was misused for discriminatory purposes, such as employers being made aware as part of a background investigation that a job applicant was HIV+, or had a record of mental illness. So there are good and valid reasons this law is in place.

It should also be noted that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, the landmark law that was enacted after decades of struggle by disability rights activists who were inspired by the larger Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, also severely restricts the availability of confidential information on the nature of an individual’s disability.

Just as importantly, there is a distinction between emotional illness, which is a catchall umbrella term for all types of emotional disabilities, and the issue of violence. As someone who has been involved in civil rights for persons with disabilities for many years, I know hundreds of people with emotional disabilities from depression to paranoid schizophrenia, and none of them has a record of violent conduct, although quite a few were abused by others.

But there is another reason beyond stereotyping and discrimination that is of concern.

It is vitally important that the confidentiality of the patient-doctor relationship be protected. If that confidentiality is lost, there will be a chilling effect that is likely to include a wariness or unwillingness to tell a doctor that you have violent thoughts or impulses, thoughts of suicide, and so on. Indeed, weakening confidentiality requirements may result in individuals not seeking medical treatment or intervention at all.

Police officers may have some limited training in psychology, but this hardly qualifies them to make decisions best left to medical professionals. It is well past time that we put a stop to the NRA’s game of demonizing individuals with emotional disabilities so that those who make guns and ammunition can show profits on their balance sheet.


Lawrence Albright
Lawrence Albright

Lawrence Albright is an activist, writer, and educator who writes from New Jersey.