Mental health and gun reform do not belong in the same sentence

There’s a familiar chain of events that happens every single time there’s a major act of gun violence, as people immediately assume the perpetrator was mentally ill, before the bullets have even hit the floor. If it transpires that he (and it’s usually a he) is/was a person of colour, then it’s terrorism, but for white people, it’s mental illness. And I have a lot of problems with this dialogue, but there’s one thing I really want to zero in on here: In the inevitable calls for better gun control, there are always calls for mental health reform.

I used to be of the mind that since people never talk about mental health reform, I should take advantage of any opportunity in which people are talking about it to push for better care for mentally ill people in America. I have since changed my mind, and the core reason why is the fact that linking mental illness with gun violence in any way, even if you’re ardently presenting statistics about mental health and violence in an attempt to push back on harmful narratives, reinforces stigma. As a mental health campaigner, I refuse to make hay while the sun shines on this one: I want mental health reform, which means that I want to fight stigma, which means that I cannot continue to tolerate this.

I’ve talked about mental health and violence here until I’m blue in the face, but for the benefit of newcomers, here we go: Mentally ill people are statistically much more likely to be victims of violence than we are to be perpetrators. Mentally ill people across the spectrum commit around three to five percent of violent crimes in the U.S., despite making up nearly 20 percent of the population, and we are actually less likely to commit gun violence specifically than sane people. Despite the fact that people think we’re some sort of violent threat, they are actually less likely to support better mental health care. What we read influences our thinking on mentally ill people. (Sources.) Moreover, the real threat when it comes to mass shootings isn’t rampage violence: It’s domestic violence.

So when the media screams that we need better mental health services after a shooting, it immediately sends the message that mentally ill people are the problem. Which is harmful on a lot of levels (not least of which is that it distracts from the very real and pressing concern of domestic violence), especially when it’s followed by lawmakers and regulators taking up the cause too. Immediately, people assume shooters were mentally ill, and then it’s affirmed by media, pop culture, and the government. And yet, weirdly, even though people think mentally ill people are the problem, they don’t take the logical step of actually supporting care.

On the surface, a lot of people probably subscribe to the same point of view I used to: The timing is terrible, but anything that gets people talking about mental health reform is important. However, the stakes here are too high. We need to be immediately stressing that mental illness does not make people violent, that if we’re going to talk about violence and mental health we should talk about how to protect mentally ill people, and that if people want to have a conversation about mental health services, we’d love to, but now is not actually the time. We need to decisively divorce conversations about mental health care from acts of mass violence, because until we decouple the two, things are going to follow this familiar cycle:

Violence>>screaming about mental health reform>>half baked and often really harmful proposals>>nothing actually passes or goes anywhere>>people forget about mental health issues>>violence>>screaming…

We have clearly learned that when we talk about mental health after violent incidents, bad things happen. In the best case scenario, nothing happens, and we achieve no meaningful change on mental health care and services. In the worst, though, people pass horrific, stigmatising, dangerous laws that come with really serious consequences for mentally ill people, like mandatory treatment and reporting laws, both of which tend to discourage mentally ill people from actually seeking care.

By silently accepting that it’s okay to link mental health and violence, we’re both perpetuating stigma and not actually helping our cause. I might feel very differently about this situation if I could point to a wealth of laws actually improving conditions for mentally ill people, passed in the wake of rampage violence. But I can’t. Just like I can’t really point to many laws improving gun control in the aftermath of mass shootings, because there aren’t very many. I can, however, point to dozens of studies showing that the public has a strong internal belief that mentally ill people are violent, and that this belief is reinforced by media reporting during shootings.

Reinforcing this stigma has another sinister element. It doesn’t just hurt mentally ill people. It also allows sane people to escape responsibility for serious conversations about what lies at the roots of rampage violence, because whether they neatly categorise it as terrorism or mental illness, they manage to dodge a confrontation with the truth. They don’t talk about racism, about misogyny, about xenophobia, homophobia, the host of other things that actually drive rampage killers. They don’t talk about how violent misogynistic rhetoric fuels people who attack women and organisations that serve them, for example, because those people are all ‘crazy’ or ‘terrorists.’ And because we don’t confront the actual causes of rampage violence, we can’t take meaningful steps to stop it.

Image: Welcome to San Francisco, Quinn Dombrowski, Flickr