The Smoking Gun and the Red Herring that is Mental Illness

This week, as with so many other weeks, this nation witnessed a community in grief, torn apart by senseless gun violence. The scenario, so familiar to so many of us, brought grief that those mourning the losses couldn’t even imagine. The responses too, were all too familiar. Calls for better gun control laws on one side, and calls for better access to mental health control on the other side.

I am not going to get into the gun control debate. People have strong opinions and I doubt anything I say will be so powerful as to persuade them to change their mind. Also, gun control has become as much a political issue as anything else, and as I said previously, I want to avoid politics.

Yet the discussions that always follow these tragedies seem to always include mental health, and proposals to increase access to mental health. And, while increased access to mental health is a good thing, a thing we desperately need, the fact is that how we talk about it matters just as much.

All mental illnesses are not created equal. Saying a person was motivated to commit a horrible atrocity because of mental illness implies that mental illness is inherently dangerous to society, that it drives people to commit these crimes. Yes, mental illness can be dangerous. Yet roughly a quarter of the population suffers from some type of mental illness. And a quarter of the population is not a danger to society.

Nevertheless mental illness is a horror to many because, like the gun violence plaguing our society, it is something many don’t understand. And people always fear what they don’t understand. But people do understand facts, so let me bring some facts into the picture.

A 2016 study found that serious mental illness contributed to about 3 percent of violent crimes with mass shootings by individuals suffering from serious mental illness contributing to roughly 1 percent of all gun related homicides. Yet since these mass shooters rarely live to tell their tales, it is easy to marginalize them as mentally ill since they can’t defend themselves. And when mental health is such a personal struggle, it is hard for others to get beyond that struggle and counter a false narrative, even one that negatively impacts stigma by falsely portraying the mentally ill as criminally dangerous.

Personally, I have depression. I have had days where I haven’t taken care of myself as well as I should. I’ve even had days where I’ve thought about suicide, albeit never in an active way, but more a morbid wonder whether anyone would care that I was gone. I’ve also gone to a gun range to shoot guns. In fact, I was fortunate enough to have gone with someone who truly enjoys guns and gun culture and was able to share his passion for firearms and that particular hobby with me. But I have never once felt the compulsion to pick up a firearm and shatter a community’s peace and serenity. And while I am usually hesitant to speak for others with their own mental health struggles, I feel very confident in saying that many of those millions of people feel the same when it comes to this issue.

Mental illness is a serious disease. It can be a fatal disease. Yet mental illness by itself should not be treated automatically as a danger to society. Because while people with mental illness sometimes commit horrible acts with guns, so do many people without mental health issues. Blurring the lines between discussions about mental health and discussions of gun violence will never solve either problem. All it will do is deepen the stigma surrounding mental illness and make it more likely that someone who is on the fence about opening up will shy away, continuing to suffer in silence.

Gun control advocates are likely to take these arguments and say, “ah ha! if mental illness isn’t the culprit then it must be guns.” Well, no, gun control advocates, that is actually not what I am saying at all, so please don’t put words in my mouth. Gun violence in this county is a far more complex issue than any one factor. It will not have an easy fix. There are good arguments that gun control laws, won’t have a significant impact on gun violence. But as I said the pros and cons of gun control are not things I am discussing today. Because while there are no easy solutions to gun violence, blaming the mentally ill is not a solution at all, just a subtle way to increase the stigma, causing a whole other type of suffering to occur in silence.

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