No, No, Not Like This

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Mental illness should not be the focus of discussions about gun violence in this country. Photo by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay.com.

I want people to talk more openly about mental illness. That is one of the reasons I write these posts. Yet we need to talk more honestly about mental illness. After several of the recent mass shootings, some were talking about mental illness as the culprit behind these tragedies, but such discussions are misleading and dangerous. 

In June of this year, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed a law requiring mental health and suicide curriculum if the school also had physical health curriculum. Yet the impetus for this bill being passed was as a response to mass shootings. And while more mental health services in schools are absolutely needed, we cannot tie those services to preventing mass shootings. Such behavior only fuels a harmful stigma that will make both kids and adults less likely to seek help. 

Similarly, the Second Amendment Foundation recently reported that President Trump was moving away from focusing on gun control laws, instead concentrating his attention on mental health law. This should come as no surprise given that Trump infamously said after one such shooting, “mental illness and hatred pull the trigger, not the gun.”

First, hatred is not a mental illness. Individuals who resort to gun violence out of ideological or religious hatred aren’t being motivated by mental illness and wouldn’t be stopped by many of these measures. Indeed, the research shows that a minority of mass shooters have a history of mental illness, and that it is wrong to link the two

Yet people do. Another example of gun control being tied to mental illness is so-called red flag laws, also known as extreme risk protective orders. Such laws temporarily allow law enforcement to take an individual’s guns if they are a threat to themselves or others. On the surface this seems like a good idea. Given that almost two-thirds of all gun deaths are suicides, it seems, and the evidence supports this, that it does have some benefit with regards to suicide prevention.

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States with red flag laws as of August 2019. Image used via a Creative Commons License.

However, some of the laws are overly broad in their definition. Red flag laws exist in 17 states and the District of Columbia, with variations between the different states in how the law is written. And the way some laws are written could cause them to apply to anyone who has a mental illness, which is almost a quarter of the population. 

And all this negative and misleading talk is fueling the stigma in a very negative way. Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Times reported that Americans increasingly fear violence from those with mental illness, even though they shouldn’t. And some of the facts from that report are deeply concerning. For example, the report noted that: 

  • In 2018, roughly 70% of respondents judged people who would probably be diagnosed with schizophrenia to be a potential danger to others, as opposed to roughly 57% in ‘96 and 60% in 2006;
  • 59% of Americans in 2018 supported laws requiring hospitalization, even involuntary hospitalization, of those who meet the diagnostic criteria for schizophrenia, as opposed to 2006 when less than half had that view;
  • about one-third of those surveyed in 2018 considered people with depression very or somewhat likely to inflict harm on others; 
  • 68% saw people with alcohol dependence as being potentially dangerous to others; and
  • support for laws to compel a person with alcohol dependence to undergo some form of therapy ranged from 26% to 38%, depending on the treatment that was used.

These numbers are scary. They are scary not only because they are wrong, but also because they will encourage lawmakers to keep focusing on the red herring that is mental illness, an effort that won’t stop gun violence, but that will prevent those who struggle from seeking treatment. 

Gun violence is a complex issue, one I don’t want to wade further into because both sides have deeply held beliefs that I want to respect, and more to the point, gun control is not the focus of this site. Yet when lawmakers misappropriate mental illness as part of this discussion, it is wrong, it is dangerous, and it is something I am going to continue to speak out against. Yes, it is helpful to have more mental health curriculum in schools. And yes, it is great that suicides are being reduced. But as long as these developments are tied to reducing mass shootings, I will continue to say no, no, not like this. 

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