Discussing Mental Illness Post-Mass Shootings

Warning: This article concerns mental illness and gun violence and might be distressing to some.

I don’t think I can count the number of times I’ve witnessed people deflecting conversations on guns to mental illness. Every time America experiences a mass shooting of any sort, be it at a school, a church, a community center, or anywhere else, people, especially politicians, avoid discussing common sense gun reform by bringing up the topic of mental illness. They go to nearly any length to skirt around the issue of the availability of weapons which enable people to commit horrible crimes like the one at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and their scapegoat is almost always mental illness. They claim that the true problem in the country is not the fact that people can gain access to weapons capable of mass destruction, but rather the lack of treatment for people with mental health issues. This portrayal of mental illness as the cause of mass shootings is incredibly problematic for many different reasons, not the least of which being that the aftermath of a mass shooting is one of the only times anyone actually talks about mental health in the US.

Mental illness is incredibly common, more so than one might think. An estimated one in five Americans lives with a mental illness in any given year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, meaning that there are approximately 43.8 million Americans experiencing mental illness. In other words, if five Americans are in a room, at least one of them likely has a mental illness. Less than half of all adults living with mental illnesses in the US receive treatment for their mental health. If a person were to assume that all individuals with untreated mental illness are violent, they would be assuming that nearly 18 million Americans are violent due to untreated illnesses. This is absolutely not true. In fact, people with mental illnesses are far more likely to be the victims of violence than they are the perpetrators. People with serious mental illness commit less than 1% of gun-related homicides each year, and they commit around 3% of all yearly violent crimes. People with mental illness do not account for 97% of all yearly violent crimes. Let me repeat that. 97% of all yearly violent crime is committed by people without serious mental illness. Nearly all violent crime is committed by non-mentally ill individuals.

You cannot say that mental illness is the real problem behind mass shootings if you know the facts about mental illness and violence. It is factually inaccurate, misleading, and dangerous. Even besides the ignorance of saying that mental illness is to blame for mass shootings, there’s yet another problem—the people who scapegoat mental illness are usually also the ones who never address mental illness in another context. During the 2016 presidential campaigns, the Republican candidates shifted the conversation post-mass shooting to mental health, blaming the shooter’s state of mind for the crime. They declared the necessity for the treatment of mental illness, stating that the shooters needed help, but they didn’t explain how to better mental health treatment moving forward. Mike Huckabee, for example, said, “Do we need to do a better job in mental health? You bet we do,” and while this seems to be a fair statement, Huckabee received a rating of D- on mental health care when he was in office in Arkansas. For him to preach about needing to improve something on which he performed terribly is frustratingly ironic and, to be frank, infuriating.

The next time someone blames a mass shooting on mental illness during an interview, I challenge the interviewer to press them about their plans to better mental health care. If they are going to make a scapegoat out of mental illness, then they absolutely need to have a solution for ensuring that people with mental illness receive the treatment they deserve. If they shift the conversation about guns to mental illness, then they by all means should be prepared to actually discuss mental illness with the intention of having an actual productive discussion on what can be done to help people with mental illness. It is unacceptable for them to blame mental illness for something it is not to blame for and then drop the subject as soon as the conversation they wanted to avoid is no longer the topic at hand. Press politicians about the issue. Make them formulate concrete plans to fix mental health care in their respective areas of governance. Do not allow them to continue to get away with this habit of mentioning mental illness to redirect a conversation away from guns and then never again speaking of it until the next mass shooting. Force them to make changes. They would rather discuss mental illness than gun control? Fine. Make them actually discuss it and figure out a way to make it better.


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