Where has all the discussion gone about gun violence and mental illness these days? Actually it is more a pronouncement than a question. You wouldn’t know from this political primary season that – since the first of the year – we have had 8000 gun violence deaths and rapidly counting. During the primary season, we have witnessed more discussion about one’s hair, hands, lack of heart, (getting on) knees -- and I better stop there, although at least we have not heard about one’s state of mind and mass murder and myths surrounding mental illness and gun violence of late. Which takes me to the theme of this blog.
Based on some very good research we now know that there are four major assumptions that frequently appear following a mass shooting:
- that mental illness causes gun violenc,
- that psychiatric diagnosis can predict gun crime,
- that shootings represent the “deranged acts of mentally ill loners”, and
- that gun control “won’t prevent” another Newtown-like mass shooting.
Each of these pronouncements are certainly true in particular instances. However, 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. In other words, those four assumptions are wrong.
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.
But here is the problem as President John F. Kennedy put it in a world that is based on myths:
“...the great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie—deliberate, contrived, and dishonest—but the myth—persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the clichйs of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”
Analyzing the data and literature linking guns and mental illness over the past 40 years shows clearly that despite societal per-conceived notions, the vast majority of people with a mental illness are not violent. Fewer than 5 percent of the 120,000 gun-related killings in the United States between 2001 and 2010 were perpetrated by people diagnosed with mental illness. Put another way, millions of people with a mental illness are not violent. Moreover, research finds that across the board, people who have a mental illness are 60 to 120 percent more likely than the average person to be the victims of violent crime rather than the perpetrators.
The focus on mental illness after horrific, yet statistically rare, mass shootings misdirects people from the bigger issues tied to preventing gun deaths in the United States.
There are 32,000 gun deaths in the United States on average every year, and people are far more likely to be shot by relatives, friends or acquaintances than they are by lone violent individuals with a mental illness.
We should set our attention and gun policies on the everyday shootings, not on the sensational shootings, because there we will get much more traction in preventing gun crime.
Americans are roughly 20 times more likely to be murdered with a gun than people in other developed countries. Other nations have disgruntled employees, suicidal people, violent video games, poverty and street violence. Other nations have citizens who struggle in their personal relationships or at their jobs. Politicians talk about “American exceptionalism” referring to the special character of the United States as a uniquely free nation based on democratic ideals personal liberty and economic ingenuity. But that doesn’t mean the freedom to kill each other off. And as many international observers point out, we are becoming “exceptional” in the wrong way.
The United States Has a Gun Violence Problem
- Every year, roughly 30,000 Americans die from gun violence.
- Women in our country are roughly 11 times more likely to be killed by a gun than women in other high-income countries.
- From 2001 through 2012, 6,410 women were murdered in the United States by an intimate partner using a gun – more than the total number of U.S. troops killed inaction during the entirety of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined.
- Every day in our country, eight children and teens under the age of 20 are killed by guns.
- American children are roughly 11 times more likely to die by guns than children in other high-income peer countries.
The presumed link between mental illness and gun violence has led to calls for mental health screening for gun owners. But a psychiatric diagnosis is in and of itself not predictive of violence. Even the overwhelming majority of psychiatric patients who fit the profile of recent U.S. mass shooters – gun-owning, angry, paranoid white men – do not commit crimes.
However there are “signs” that could aid in predicting gun violence more broadly:
- Drug and alcohol use
- History of violence
- Access to firearms
- Personal relationship stress
People are far more likely to be shot by relatives, friends, enemies or acquaintances than they are by lone violent individuals with a mental health condition.
But let’s face it in the U.S: Responses to mass shootings reflect cultural anxieties about race and gender. People are accumulating guns in the present day has a lot to do with the fear of the unknown stranger. ‘Somebody could come attack me or my family, so we need to protect ourselves.’ And that rhetoric is most common among suburban white men – and of course, the NRA.
Political and racial strife in the 1960s led some African Americans to push for their constitutional right to own and carry guns, while some white Americans at the time, including the NRA, pushed for stricter gun control laws. But I digress.
The point for us in the mental health field is that in discussions with lawmakers we want them to pay much more attention to improving the mental health system such as access to health insurance (can you believe that 20 states have still not expanded Medicaid and the same states have the nerve to talk about an opioid crisis or substance abuse mess as millions have no access to affordable coverage that contains behavioral health benefits), no wrong-door to receiving mental health care services, especially folks in crisis, access to evidence-based medications and needed social supports. Don’t mix gun control and mental health. Help people with their mental health condition.
So now that I have dispensed with the myths surrounding mental illness and gun violence – and although it is dangerous to delve into it – one must get to the heart of the matter. The primary reason we have such a high rate of deaths from gun violence is because we have bad laws.
Federal law and many states don’t require background checks on all gun purchases, making it easy for dangerous people like convicted felons, domestic abusers to get guns – no questions asked. Under federal law, many convicted stalkers and domestic abusers can still pass a background check and legally obtain a gun. Amazing.
Speaking of federal law, we still do not have clear congressional legislation against gun trafficking, tying the hands of prosecutors and law enforcement officials.
And many states don’t do enough to report records of dangerous people to our federal background check system – and a background check system is only as good as the data it contains.
Actually the more I think about the issue the more I realize that those of us in the mental health field need to support actions to address this problem as well because we are supposed to represent the interests of people with mental illness. Say what? Yes, we need to turn this whole thing around.
Our new slogan should be: Protect Millions of People with a Mental Illness from Gun Violence: They are Just Like You and Me and Vulnerable Like You and Me (even more so)”.#MentalHealthReform #GunViolence
Next blog coming soon…
Social Determinants, Gun Violence and Mental Health