By Victoria Venable
Elm Staff Writer
At the beginning of the month, America witnessed yet another gun-related tragedy. This time the loss of life occurred on the campus of the Umpqua Community College where a 26-year-old student fatally shot an assistant professor and eight students in a classroom before taking his own life once confronted by the police. Though this was the largest school shooting in recent months, CNN reported that there have been 74 school shootings in the past 18 months. In the aftermath, America was stricken with grief and wondering where to point the finger. The scapegoats have not changed since Columbine or Sandy Hook, gun policy and mental healthcare.
As gun control advocates point to this event as yet another example of America’s failed gun policy, their opponents want to point their fingers at mental illness. Slogans like “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” circulate faster and NRA memberships skyrocket in response to gun right challenges. While I could write a book on how America’s lax gun policy is more than to blame for our high numbers of gun violence, that’s not what I’ll focus on here. We need to talk about mental health and gun violence differently.
I’m glad that policymakers and Americans on the whole want to talk about mental health and the accessibility of care in America, but it is problematic that this conversation is only occurring in response to mass gun violence as a tool to steer the blame away from gun ownership. It is problematic that the narrators of this story are correlating violence with mental illness. It is problematic that we are putting the discussion of mental illness in a context that misleads the public into thinking that mentally ill means potentially violent.
According to one distinguished study reported in The Washington Post, the vast majority of people with severe and persistent mental illness are non-violent, and we would only see a four percent reduction in gun violence if mental illnesses were eliminated. Although individuals with severe psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia or bipolar illness are more likely to partake in violent behavior, the frequencies of these disorders are small. It should also be noted that ,according to The Washington Post, the majority of individuals participating in gun violence are not mentally ill. It is much more likely that the mentally ill individual will be the victim, not the perpetuator.
It’s important to make this distinction because mental illness is already stigmatized and cannot afford more marginalization. We must break the damaging associations between mental illness and violence. If we bring more shame to the forefront of the discussion of mental illness, we are taking major leaps backward because stigma prevents access and stunts recovery.
Beyond being a potentially harmful framing of mental illness, this argument that places the blame for gun violence on a seemingly broken mental health system is measurably incorrect. In fact, our mental health system is not substantially worse than that of other highly developed countries. A patient with moderate or severe psychiatric illness is just as likely to be seen for care in the U.S. as in western Europe and is just as likely to have a follow-up appointment to receive at least minimally effective treatment, according to the most recent WHO study. The issues of accessibility and income equality within the mental health system are universal, and yet, gun violence is 20 times more prevalent in the U.S. than other highly developed countries.
The sensationalized narrative surrounding the mass shootings in America profits from the easy target of mental illness as an explanation. Do we need to increase access to adequate healthcare for the mentally ill, particularly those of already marginalized groups? Absolutely. This conversation, though, needs to continue past the trending periods after mass shootings. This conversation needs to be placed in a more sensitive and accurate context or else we are letting gun-rights lobbyists use mental illness as a policy tool at the expense of the 45 million Americans living with mental illness.