In the wake of the shooting spree in Newtown, CT that killed 27 people, 20 of whom were children, a great many people in our nation and outside it have weighed in on how to prevent future gun violence. Suggestions include enacting stricter gun control laws, improving our mental health care nationwide, and making a database of individuals who have been diagnosed with mental illnesses. I am not going to go into the arguments about guns, as I lack the expertise. However, I would like to speak about the national discourse on mental illnesses.
The link between mental illness and violence is greatly exaggerated in the general population. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, most people who are violent do not suffer from mental illnesses, and people with mental illnesses are more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violent crimes. Why, then, should improving mental health services make any appreciable difference on the rates of gun violence?
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have a better mental health care system in the United States. Rather, I feel that framing mental health care in terms of gun violence is not useful and could actually be harmful. I would love a better, more accessible, and less stigmatized mental health care system. But stigmatization is exactly the problem. We as a society associate mental illness with violence far too often. It’s in our television shows, in our politics, and in many other facets of our everyday lives. As a result of this stigma, people who need treatment often never seek it, and many, regardless of whether they are being treated or not, try to hide their mental illnesses. As is true of other marginalized groups within our broader culture, societal oppression and discrimination make living with mental illnesses extremely difficult even with the best treatments. Many people will not hire someone whom they know has a mental illness; likewise, resources like housing and medical treatment are harder to obtain if one is mentally ill.
So let’s talk about framing mental illness in terms of and in the wake of gun violence. Politicians, organizations, and a great many individuals are demanding that mental health be addressed, believing that, had the shooters in recent tragedies like Newtown, Aurora, and Fort Hood been noticed and taken care of before they became violent, these events would not have occurred.
But what might an earlier intervention have discovered? There are certainly signs that precede expression of violent tendencies, such as aggression, domestic violence, and substance abuse. However, many of these early signs are inherent to mainstream masculine culture. Circumstances like a recent divorce, loss of a job, or substance abuse are far better predictors of future violence than a history of mental illness. I would posit, then, that a database of persons with psychiatric disabilities would do nothing to curb violence and would, in fact, only make people who need treatment for whatever reason less likely to seek it.
I would also like to point out that a great many people have a diagnosable mental illness like anxiety, depression, or PTSD due to past trauma. I myself am one of those people. I have been repeatedly exposed to domestic violence at home, starting when I was very young. More recently, a male relative decided to physically intimidate me in such a way that I was still getting intrusive memories and panic attacks some seven, eight months later. My mental illnesses have been caused by abuse that included violence and the threat of violence. Even so, I utterly lack the will to hurt someone physically. Nevertheless, people like New York Governor Andrew Cuomo are proposing laws that require mental health professionals to report patients whom they believe are likely to harm themselves or others. At that point, law enforcement officials would be authorized to confiscate those patients’ firearms. Such measures feed into the belief that those of us with mental illnesses are likely to be dangerous.
But that puts the emphasis on the wrong issue. Laws like Governor Cuomo’s proposal would fail to catch most perpetrators of violence, many of whom can and do refuse to seek treatment for violent tendencies. Not only would such laws breach doctor-patient confidentiality, but they would also further stigmatize mental illness and make more patients hesitant to confide in their healthcare providers. Is this really the kind of system we want to create for ourselves?