When devastating mass shootings are spun into a talking point about some mental illness epidemic, it’s a distraction and not one most politicians doing the spinning actually care about. It’s a tale as old as time: there’s a challenge to the status quo and in response politicians put out statements that amp up confirmation bias, which in turn enables the powerful to get away with maintaining the status quo thanks to cognitive dissonance.
Nothing changes, and we wait for the next shooting. The United States has more mass shootings than any other country in the world. Between 2006 and 2013, the number of mass shootings per year nearly tripled. Clearly, the status quo needs to change.
Conflating mental illness and violence is not new, but the more that stigma is enforced by the type of narrative that always seems to follow mass shootings, the more damage it causes and the more lives it takes. Someone living with a mental health condition is actually at a greater risk of being the victim of violence than the perpetrator. In the general population, about 1 to 3 percent of people over 12 years old experienced violent victimization in 2014 and 2015. The estimated prevalence of violent victimization for those with serious mental illness was significantly higher, at 25 percent. Other longitudinal studies have found that victims of violent crime are over 10 times more likely to be living with a mental health condition than the general population. Despite the very real risk of becoming a victim, people with mental health disorders underestimate their own vulnerability.
Meanwhile, the public grossly overestimates the violent nature of people who have mental health disorders. Only an estimated 3 to 5 percent of violent crimes are carried out by people who have a serious mental illness, leaving 95 to 97 percent of violent crimes to be committed by others. That doesn’t mean a person carrying out a mass murder doesn’t have poor mental health, but being violent is not a mental illness.
Anger is also not a mental illness, but it is a trigger for violence. Impulsive anger issues coupled with guns is a deadly cocktail, and one that is coursing through the veins of the United States. According to a study published in Behavioral Sciences and the Law, “An estimated 9 percent of adults in the U.S. have a history of impulsive, angry behavior and have access to guns…[and] an estimated 1.5 percent of adults report impulsive anger and carry firearms outside their homes.” These are not people who necessarily have a mental illness, as the report in Science Daily reads: “Fewer than one in 10 angry people with access to guns had ever been admitted to a hospital for a psychiatric or substance abuse problem, the study found. As a result, most of these individuals’ medical histories wouldn’t stop them from being able to legally purchase guns under existing mental-health-related restrictions.”
Only 43 percent of adults over 18 with mental illness will have contact with a mental health professional this year. That is a nationwide statistic, but regionally the numbers vary and leave out people who don’t meet diagnostic criteria but who would benefit from access to psychological care. Among people actively trying to receive treatment, one in five claim their needs are not being met. When race and ethnicity are considered, more disparities emerge as people of color face increased rates of systemic discrimination and institutionalized violence. There are four major factors that stand in the way of proper care: insurance coverage shortcomings; lack of available healthcare providers; lack of access to proper treatment methods; and the high cost of treatment.
Poor mental health is part of the problem, not mental illness. A person can have a mental illness and still experience mental wellbeing; they aren’t mutually exclusive. Mental health is an umbrella term that encompasses psychological, social, and emotional wellbeing. Mental health plays a role in every aspect of our lives, and as we continue to erode social institutions under the guise of rugged individualism, mental health outcomes suffer.
If the people blaming gun violence on mental illness wanted to seriously take on the issue of poor mental health in America, that would be incredible. Unfortunately, that’s not what’s happening. The same politicians blaming mental illness are the ones who want to gut insurance coverage, reduce access to education, and take away benefits needed to obtain mental health care and to maintain good mental health.
It is easy to blame gun violence on mental illness in a country where access to even basic healthcare is extremely limited, let alone access to psychological treatment. It lets politicians off the hook, because if mental illness is the issue and healthcare is a privilege, the solution must be a stronger police state and more guns to counter the, as Donald Trump put it, “sickos out there.”
Dana Loesch, National Rifle Association (NRA) spokeswoman, spoke with teen survivors of Parkland in a CNN town hall. In one 11-minute clip she danced around the question “should [it] be harder to obtain semi-automatic weapons and modifications to make them fully automatic, such as bump stocks?” Her dance of avoidance was punctuated by deflecting the focus towards mental illness. Here is a taste of the stigmatizing terms laced throughout her statements, and how many times she used each of them: insane (2) crazy (3) nuts (1) madman (1) monster (2) mentally unfit (1).
Words matter. Words reflect and reinforce societal norms, like stigmas. A stigma is a widespread, degrading attitude about a particular issue or condition which then labels an individual as being different based on false stereotypes and ignorance.
The stigma of mental illness has devastating consequences. People with mental illness are frequently denied access to care, have limited access to jobs and housing, and are more likely to be abused. Stigma prevents people from seeking help because they feel shame; if they do reach out, they frequently face discrimination when asking for assistance.
One particularly troubling idea floated in the town hall was that folks with mental illness should be taken into an institution to be evaluated and put into a system; that they should be convicted and labeled mentally unfit.
Experiencing a mental illness is not a crime, and thanks to HIPPA laws, medical records are not public and do not show up on a background check. However, inpatient psychiatric institutions are few and far between, and even for people who are severely mentally ill and would benefit from a higher level of care, it’s expensive and there are limited beds available. So, this group of people frequently end up incarcerated or homeless. Almost 50 percent of homeless adults live with severe mental illness and/or substance use disorders. Treatment is not easy to come by.
I am very open about discussing my own experiences with mental illness. When I first started seeking treatment, I don’t think I would have followed through if I knew my mental health history would show up on any background check in my future. I have never been a danger to anyone else, and most people with mental illness can say the same. We won’t solve mass shootings by labeling or categorizing all folks with mental health disorders. Instead, we need to work on dismantling prejudicial notions which reinforce fear of mental illness. Thanks to improved therapeutic methods and a constantly evolving understanding of human psychology, many people with mental illness and access to care have healthy, productive, and happy lives.
Compared to other countries, in the United States it is much more likely for violence in schools to be gun-related. The Academy for Critical Incident Analysis found that between 2000 and 2010, mass violence in a school occurred 57 times in 36 countries. Half of those incidents were in the United States. The rest of the countries had a combined population of 3.8 billion people in 2010 while the United States was home to 309 million people. That should be shocking, but this kind of statistic seems more inevitable than surprising when there are more guns in the U.S. than in any other country. The data speaks for itself, and despite the NRA’s strong hold on America’s political institutions, there are many non-government funded studies that illustrate just how massive the problem is.
Increasing the number of guns in a given location is not a solution; it just increases the likelihood of fatal shootings. The United States doesn’t have more crime than other countries, but it has more fatal outcomes.
In the face of damning numbers like these, it can be easy to lose hope. Children continue to die in their classrooms and lawmakers continue to do nothing to save them. We can find some solace in the activism of the teens who survived the Parkland, Florida massacre. They remind me that when I was a teenager, I was involved and could organize, mobilize, and be civically engaged. I led a protest and participated in a walk out, and I never had a devastating catalyst like these young people. It’s time to listen to these young people who have had enough of our lack of progress. They’re doing what adults are unwilling to do.
Claims that we should wait to talk about solutions to tragedies until the shock has passed are misguided. It is the outrage in the aftermath of trauma that can propel thoughtful analysis. It pushes us, often in desperation, for real solutions. Emotion is a catalyst for deep and meaningful change.