Mental Health and Mass Shootings: Science Says…

As the country was reeling last Monday from mass shootings that took place in El Paso, TX and Dayton, OH, President Trump addressed the country. One sentence in particular from his remarks stood out as a focal point: “Mental illness and hatred pulled the trigger,” he announced. “Not the gun.” By using this language, the President revived a decades-long narrative that falsely links mental health conditions and violence, including mass shootings. 

When we look at gun violence in general, and mass murder specifically, science simply does not bear out this connection. Experts have been saying for years that people with mental health conditions are more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators, most frequently at the hands of law enforcers. A person with a psychiatric disability is 16 times more likely than the general public to be abused or killed by the police. 

Yet the American public largely believes the lie of dangerousness. Two-thirds of Americans said they would be “unwilling to have a person with serious mental illness as a neighbor.” Fifty percent of those surveyed viewed people diagnosed with serious mental illness as “more dangerous than the general population.” Following the President’s remarks, people living with mental health conditions expressed worries that such statements will serve to increase already-existing stigma and would discourage people from seeking mental health services.

What is also concerning is that Mr. Trump called for the “involuntary confinement” of people with psychiatric disabilities. There is no reliable way to predict if someone will commit a mass shooting. Psychological profiles of mass shooters are always created after the fact. And often, as was in the case of the Dayton shooter, people did notice warning signs, such as a fascination with rape and violence, which were reported to the police, but no action was taken. 

As Sara Kernigsberg, a person living with a mental health condition, wrote in The Washington Post, “Ironically, by forcing those considered mentally ill into ‘involuntary confinement’ as he says, he’s harming those who are already imperiled and present little to no risk to others.” Infringing on the civil liberties of people with mental health conditions won’t change the status quo, but it could increase harm to an already-marginalized group of people.

Thankfully, from Twitter to The New York times, experts loudly and clearly debunked President Trump’s dangerous assertions about “mental illness and violence.” The American Medical Association (AMA) President Patrice Harris told the National Association of Black Journalists last week: “Mass shootings do not equate to mental illness, do not equate to a problem with mental illness.” 

The American Psychological Association (APA) issued a powerful statement: “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. Psychological science has demonstrated that social contagion — the spread of thoughts, emotions and behaviors from person to person and among larger groups — is real, and may well be a factor, at least in the El Paso shooting.” The APA called for the El Paso shooting to be investigated as a hate crime.

Despite decades’-long Federal restrictions into firearms research, the science is clear. What differentiates the U.S. from other countries that have similar rates of mental health problems is easy access to weapons. Arthur Evans, CEO of the American Psychological Association, said in a recent statement: “Based on the research, we know only that a history of violence is the single best predictor of who will commit future violence. And access to more guns, and deadlier guns, means more lives lost.” Evans advocated for lawmakers to pass gun restrictions, including a limit on civilians’ access to assault weapons and high capacity magazines.

A Los Angeles Times Op-Ed called for society to be more pro-active: “Proactive violence prevention starts with schools, colleges, churches and employers initiating conversations about mental health and establishing systems for identifying individuals in crisis, reporting concerns and reaching out — not with punitive measures but with resources and long-term intervention. Everyone should be trained to recognize the signs of a crisis.” 

Everyone can play a part in reversing these destructive trends in our society and creating a safer tomorrow. A few of the most critical things we can do are to educate ourselves on the issues, to vote for candidates who share our views – and to consider running for office ourselves!

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