By: Roberta Zenker, Staff Attorney, Disability Rights Montana
Last week our president proclaimed in the wake of two mass shootings that “mental illness and hatred pull the trigger, not the gun.” DJT 8/5/2019. However, doctors and psychological experts agree that no direct correlation exists between mental illness and mass shootings. “Routinely blaming mass shootings on mental illness is unfounded and stigmatizing. Research has shown that only a very small percentage of violent acts are committed by people who are diagnosed with, or in treatment for, mental illness.” Statement of American Psychological Association (APA)President Rosie Phillips Davis, PhD, August 4, 2019.
Despite routine claims from politicians and gun advocates to the contrary, studies show that people with diagnosed mental illnesses commit less than 5% of violent crimes. They are much more likely to be victims than to commit gun violence. The Dangers Of The Mental Health Narrative When It Comes To Gun Violence, Sarah Kim, Forbes, August 7, 2019.
Dr. Seth Trueger, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at Northwestern University, told Time that although rates of mental health conditions have risen in the U.S., other countries have seen similar trends in mental illnesses, but far fewer mass shooters than America had experienced. Dr. Trueger, along with several other medical professionals, argue that it is the access to the guns – not mental health systems – that causes this large-scale firearm violence.
Id. (Emphasis added).
Still, more Americans truly believe that mental health problems are the leading cause of these mass shootings even though medical experts repeatedly demonstrate that this is not the case.
Violence is not a product of mental illness; violence is a product of anger. An adult who is able to effectively regulate anger uses it to alert himself to a problem situation. Managed well, it is an extraordinarily effective warning system. Unregulated, impulses are stronger, and thinking is less clear. The poorly regulated adult with enhanced reactivity, impulsivity, and a constant state of fight or flight sees in every interaction the potential for being harmed and the necessity to defend himself. The angrier he feels, the less clearly he will think. His reactions will often be out of proportion to the situation, and he will be prone to violence. Because he sees the world as a constant source of danger, he externalizes blame, to his spouse, children, neighbors, government, and “others” in race, nationality, religion, or culture. Angry, blaming, aggressive, and unable to modulate his emotions, he can become a danger to others.
Psychologist, Laura L. Hayes, Slate 2016. Hayes writes that mass murders do fit a profile: He is male, white, and single, divorced, or separated. He is also isolated, lacking in social support, and bears a grudge toward someone or something. He externalizes blame and sees himself as wronged. Id. Notably, the profile does not include the presence of mental illness.
Time, and time again, psychological experts report that no correlation exists between diagnosed mental illness and mass murder. “Indeed, the U.S. is facing crises in both gun violence and mental illnesses. However, to correlate those two separate phenomena and to blame mass shootings on the mentally ill is grossly inappropriate.” Id.
The mentally ill shooter narrative disproportionately, indiscriminately assesses blame to a vast segment of the population. Approximately half of the U.S. population experiences a mental illness during their lifetime. Dangers, supra. (Thus, it is manifest that if the mental illness shooter narrative had any merit, there would be a far greater number of mass shootings). Mental illness ranges from ordinary depression that we might refer to as “feeling down” or the “blues” to clinical, long term depression, paranoia, anxiety, schizophrenia, or any of the “more than 200 diagnoses listed in the most recent version of Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is released by the American Psychiatric Association.” No Tie Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence, Arash Javanbakht, Live Science, August 6, 2019. The author rightly asks: “Now, when one suggests that gun access should be restricted for people with mental illness, do they mean all of these conditions? Or just some, or some in defined circumstances? For example, should we remove guns from all veterans with PTSD, or all people with social anxiety, or those who habitually pick their skin?” Id. And, we might rightly ask just who would decide – the vendor at a gun show, a retail sales clerk, the police, a doctor, a judge? The so called “red flag laws” are such a proposal, except that they are limited to police and family members and provide a measure of due process in that the person seeking to deprive another of gun possession must petition a court for an “order from a judge to confiscate firearms from someone deemed a danger to themselves or others.” CBS News, Second Amendment advocates warn Trump over support for “red flag” laws, Kathryn Watson, August 14, 2019. Watson writes that such laws already exist in 17 states and the District of Columbia. While there are many cases in which such court orders may be perfectly appropriate, in a state like Montana where subsistence hunting is common, “red flag laws” might be misguided and not the best solution to the problem of mass shooting. As inferred above, making assault style firearms and large capacity magazines unavailable to the public is likely a better solution to the mass shooting problem.
That is because the facts do not support a correlation between gun violence and diagnosed mental illness. Less than 1% of the U.S. population experiences schizophrenia. No Tie, supra. And, of those, “it is rare to find people who are a risk of harm to others or at risk of acting violently.” They are much more likely to harm themselves. Id. Thus, a “red flag” law that restricts a subsistence hunter who also happens to be schizophrenic (managed by medication) from possessing a hunting rifle would have no impact on the mass shooting problem.
Despite the widespread belief that a person with serious mental illness like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia can be dangerous, only 3% to 4% of all the violent acts committed in a given year in the U.S. are committed by people who have been diagnosed with these commonly cited mental illnesses. Id. “Various epidemiological studies over the past three decades suggest that the vast majority of people with serious mental illnesses, like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or severe depression, are not violent.” Jeffrey Swanson, Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Duke University (Specialty in gun violence and mental illness). Again, these are conditions that are much more likely to lead to suicide rather than homicide.
Javanbakht also points out that, while the incidence of severe mental illness remains near constant across international boundaries, the incidence of gun violence does not. It is much higher in the US where guns are readily accessible. In addition, any likelihood of violence amongst the mentally ill is exacerbated by substance abuse such that substance abuse is more of a culprit.
“Finally, one has to keep in mind that the presence of a psychiatric diagnosis in a murderer, does not necessarily justify causality, as much as the weapon the person carries.” No Tie, supra. What the author is saying is that, due to the prevalence of mental illness in our society (approximately 50%), statistically speaking, odds are that eventually a shooter will experience mental illness. Of course, this means that the converse is true as well – because of the prevalence of guns in our society, eventually a person with mental illness is going to be a shooter. However, and this must be stressed, it is much more likely that a mass shooter is going to fit the profile above, and not be a person with a diagnosed mental illness.
What is the significance of a diagnosed mental illness? This is quite simple, really. Proponents of the mental health shooter narrative suggest that keeping guns out of the hands of people who experience mental illness will solve the mass shooting epidemic. They are often adherents of thorough background checks, and laws that would prohibit people who experience mental illness from purchasing guns. The HIPAA and enforcement difficulties inherent in this approach notwithstanding, people with a diagnosed mental illness are those who have sought and obtained treatment. A diagnosis can be made only by a mental health professional. Of course, once a diagnosis is made, appropriate treatment usually follows, often including medication and counseling which help multitudes of people with mental illness lead “normal,” healthy, functioning lives. These are the people who will show up on a background check for mental illness, while people with a non-diagnosed mental illness will likely not.
Mass shootings are the result of anger, hate, exaggerated domestic violence, revenge or retribution. Blaming mass shootings on mental illness is ‘inaccurate’ and ‘stigmatizing,’ experts say. Jacqueline Howard, CNN, August 5, 2019. Thus, “[f]raming mass shootings as a ‘mental health issue” certainly could lead to policies aimed at improving mental health, but “that won’t prevent the next shooter, said Lori Ann Post, a professor of emergency medicine and medical social sciences at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, who studies violence and policy.” Id. By all means, we should improve and increase services to people who experience mental illness. However, as APA President Rosie Phillips Davis, PhD concludes:
[A]s our nation tries to process the unthinkable yet again, it is clearer than ever that we are facing a public health crisis of gun violence fueled by racism, bigotry and hatred. The combination of easy access to assault weapons and hateful rhetoric is toxic.
We must treat people who experience mental illness and stop blaming them for a public health crisis far beyond them.
The real solution to mass shootings is obvious, even if we lack the political will to adopt it. However, in the meanwhile, we must stop using mental illness as the scape goat.