Note: This post calls for gun control. If you disagree with anything likely said here or if you want to let me know about your 2nd Amendment rights, I respect your opinions and hope you will find it possible to respect mine. I thought a lot about whether or not to write this piece, but ultimately decided to take the risk.
There has been a lot of talk in the media about mental illness and gun violence. In the aftermath of any tragic event, people want a scapegoat. It is the easiest way to try and understand the action and reassure themselves by having a clear person or reason to point a finger at. This is an understandable and completely human reaction.
There are some politicians and news outlets that have been freely using the phrase “mentally ill” when describing the perpetrators of mass shootings. While it is true that some of this violence has been committed by those with a severe mental illness, it is not true that all were mentally ill. Yet, this is the perspective that most people take without understanding the whole picture or realizing the damage that it wrecks on those who live with mental illness and the mental health system itself.
It seems like people want to talk mental illness and guns a lot lately. Well, let’s talk.
First, no research has “reliably established that most mass murderers and shooters are psychotic or even suffering from a serious mental illness…Individual case studies often reveal paranoid themes in these persons’ cognitions. The paranoia may not rise to the level of psychosis; however, many are found to be preoccupied with feelings of social persecution and fantasies of revenge against their perceived tormentors” (Knoll, Annas 2016).
Second, mass shootings by people with serious mental illness represent less than 1% of all yearly gun-related homicides. However, the majority of yearly-gun related deaths are deaths by suicide. In 2010, 19,392 people took their own lives with a gun, while 11,078 who were killed by others (Drexler, Harvard Public Health). In a 2008 study by Miller and David Hemenway, states with the highest rates of gun ownership had suicide rates 3.7 times higher for men and 7.9 times higher for women, although the rates the of non-firearm suicides were about the same.
It’s not that those who own guns are more likely to be mentally ill or suicidal. Only a small portion of gun owners say they have attempted suicide. It’s that they are more likely to die if they were to become suicidal because of their access to a gun. Around 85% of suicide attempts with a firearm will end in death. Compare this to drug overdose which is fatal in less than 3% of cases.
Not only do current gun laws fail to protect the public against shooters, including the 17 lives lost in the recent Florida shooting, but they fail to protect people from themselves. I am not suggesting that tighter gun laws will eradicate suicide – this is a farce because, albeit sadly, there are numerous ways to take one’s own life. Tighter gun laws will make it more difficult to obtain a firearm, which both limits those who are looking to commit violence and those who looking to commit suicide. Death by firearm is the most effective way of committing suicide – a reality that cannot be ignored.
Third, the media branding of the mentally ill as “insane” or “crazy” only further stigmatizes mental illness. Stigma is a complex issue that could take books (or hundreds of papers) to try and explain, but I’ll be focusing on self-stigma here. Self-stigma occurs when people with mental illness internalize stigma experience diminished self-esteem and self-efficacy. Much of the research on self-stigma is based on a model by Link (Link, 1987; Link & Phelan, 2001). Link’s work showed that self-stigma begins from childhood conceptualizations that reflect lay beliefs about mental illness, i.e. film and media depicting the mentally ill as unstable, violent or inhuman. This conceptualization continues into adult life, with many people devaluing themselves, leading to decreased self-esteem. This interferes with the pursuit of rehabilitative goals such as living independently and medical goals such as pursuing professional psychological/psychiatric services. The mental health system has its flaws – I have seen some of them first hand. However, with incorrect or one-sided representations of the mentally ill on the media has the negative effect of preventing some from seeking help. It makes sense – if being mentally ill can mark someone as “crazy,” then why would that person admit that he or she had a mental illness and obtain proper treatment and support?
Finally, my mental illness is my experience. It is something that I am allowed to keep to myself and not divulge to others if I did not want to. To me, the only way to keep those with mental illness from obtaining a firearm is to somehow make private medical records public. After all, gun sellers are supposed to run a background check on potential buyers – would my or someone else’s diagnosis be available on that background check? If we’re going to talk about rights, then I have a right to keep my medical records private. No stranger should have the ability to bar me from doing something based on a diagnosis he or she is not privy to. Where does the line get drawn? Would it be anyone with a diagnosed mental illness, or only those that have been hospitalized, or only those who take psychiatric medications? Would it be all of the above? Is it fair to single out all who are mentally ill and label them a potential public danger?
I have nothing against legally owning and purchasing firearms if it is done through the proper channels. I do not know the right way to draft and implement gun control. All I know is that the current conversation on mental illness and gun violence is not comprehensive and leaves out more than I am comfortable with.
A lot of people want to talk mental illness and guns. Let’s talk. Let’s talk about gun-related suicides and stigma and privacy. People need to hear it.