OPINION: Stop Blaming Gun Violence on Mental Illness


"The attempt to turn the question of gun violence into a question of mental health is obscene. Of course, people who kill children en masse are crazy. That’s the given. Saying this says nothing; every country contains...potentially violent people. Only America arms them."

-Adam Gopnik, the New Yorker*

In the United States, 80% of youth with severe depression receive insufficient or no mental healthcare. In the aftermath of shooting after shooting, national dialogue, especially in Washington, can't help but reiterate one point: it's not the guns, it's mental illness. But this thought process is not only incorrect - it's counterproductive to the point of being destructive.

American government continues its lethargic track record of tackling mental healthcare access (bill here, one of many stuck waiting) even as some officials continue to use mental illness as the scapegoat for any problems they may see. Beyond the frustrating concept of blaming something for an obliquely-related problem while refusing to actually fix the blamed thing, the default to mental illness as " the reason" for gun violence is thoroughly misguided.

"According to the National Center for Health Statistics, 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 a mental illness."

-Olga Khazan, the Atlantic

On the contrary, people with severe mental illnesses are over 10 times more likely to be victims of violent crime than the general population.

"If you were to suddenly cure schizophrenia, bipolar, and depression overnight, violent crime in the US would fall by only 4 percent, according to an estimate from Duke University professor Jeffrey Swanson, a sociologist and psychiatric epidemiologist who studies the relationship between violence and mental illness."

-Dylan Matthews, Vox

If we truly want to do something about mental health, let's talk about mental health. No conditionals. No "but"s. No additional agendas.

When mental health is only brought up as a scapegoat to circumvent real, meaningful discussions about violence in the U.S., progress is halted. Using mental health as an excuse and a political strategy achieves only the following:

1) It further contributes to the dangerous and paralyzing stigma/stereotype that those with mental illness are fundamentally bad people, which makes people scared to seek help. If someone becomes afraid of reaching out in fear of being branded as a "bad" person, they become more prone to isolation and the consequences that may ensue from shutting one self down. This sort of suffocating mindset is exactly what many who say that mental illness leads to gun violence will claim they want to avoid in the first place, yet by choosing to continue the narrative that mental illness is the one-stop shop for mass shooters, this mindset is actually made more plausible via the counterproductive reinforcement of heartbreaking stigmas.

2) It only hinders the conversation needed to pass actual gun reform and needed to change something. Instead, it distracts from the ruthless lethality of assault rifles and lack of safety measures taken that would otherwise ensure that those who purchase powerful guns are capable of handling them logically and cautiously.

3) It fails to even address mental healthcare anyway, because this is not in the context of bettering mental health but in the context of justifying owning assault rifles for personal entertainment. Whether or not a single shooter has a mental illness is irrelevant to the larger scope of the issue, since a single person can have any amalgamation of traits.

How about talking about mental health in all contexts, not just when it's convenient? We need to have better mental healthcare, yes, but we need it to protect the vulnerable from violence and to make sure that the victims of horrific crimes are able to get back on their feet without terror permanently scarring their hearts.

Mental health must be properly addressed now; it is a prerequisite to progress in this country.

If one truly wanted to focus on something other than guns, it would be far more productive to recognize the dangerous implications of a record of assault against women.

"A large portion of the mass shootings in the U.S. in recent years have roots in domestic violence against partners and family members. Depending on how you count, it could be upwards of 50 percent."

-April Fulton, NPR

(It is worth noting that despite statistics like this, the "boyfriend loophole" still hasn't been closed, so to avoid guns in talks of preventing mass shootings is ignorant at best and deadly at worst.)

It would be far more worthwhile, either way, to talk about gun laws rather than pretending to care about something only when it provides an excuse. But if we do care, let's care in all contexts. Let's do something about mental health. You can join our movement here at Letters to Strangers. Reach out to your congressional representatives about co-sponsoring mental health bills. Break down the stigma in your community against vulnerability. Speak, but more importantly, listen.

Mental health does matter, and not because it causes mass shootings - because its effect on isolation and violence cannot be discussed in a vacuum. Because to care about it means to recognize that it's not the equivalence of a mass shooting guarantee, and that if it does contribute to violence in any situation, we should figure out how to better approach it for the future rather than emptily claim it a lost cause. Because mental health affects all of us.

And that's worth so much than a one-liner on twitter or television.

*note that the original quote said "mentally ill and potentially violent people," which may be misinterpreted to mean that people who are mentally ill are violent - something that is statistically not true. Due to that potential confusion, we truncated the quote for clarity purposes.

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