With two horrific mass shootings in one week, one of which left 20 children dead in Connecticut, the national conversation in the United States is once again turning to the epidemic of gun violence that appears to have the nation firmly in its grip. 2012 has been a particularly deadly and awful year, leading many to call for decisive action on an issue that’s been troubling the U.S. for a long time. Too many people die as a result of gun crime every year in the U.S., and even one mass shooting is too many.
Sadly, this conversation only seems to take place in the immediate aftermath of a shooting, when everyone becomes outraged. Then the issue fades from the radar again until the next shooting, at which point the same arguments come up and then are allowed to quietly fade away again. Sadder still, much of the rhetoric that swirls around mass shootings is incorrect, damaging, and frustrating; especially if the goal really is to put a stop to these kinds of horrific and awful events.
As soon as a mass shooting hits the news, speculation about mental illness starts. Everyone assumes that the shooter must have been “crazy,” because “no sane person would do something like this.” Such tactics are distancing, allowing people to imagine that the capacity for the kind of evil that would lead someone to march into a school and mow down innocent children only lies in mentally ill people, and they’re also hugely stigmatizing. Because along with the attitude that mental illness lies at the root of gun crime is the idea that gun crime could be solved by locking mentally ill people away or, in the case of more compassionate suggestions, providing better mental health services. These ideas presume that it is possible to predict dangerousness on the basis of mental health status.
Make no mistake: the United States is in a state of mental health crisis, and this needs to be addressed.
But mental illness doesn’t cause gun crimes, and speculations about the role of mental illness cover up the real problem here, which is the lack of gun control. In the same week that two mass shootings took innocent lives on opposite coasts, a conceal carry debate raged in Chicago, and Michigan’s legislature passed a bill allowing concealed weapons in schools.
Here are some actual facts, rather than speculation, about mental illness and violence. An estimated one in four people in the United States requires treatment for mental health issues in any given year, and about one in 17 people lives with what is known as a a “serious mental illness,” such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression. 25% of the people in this country living with mental illness can expect to be victims of violent crime, in contrast with 3% of the general population. A study conducted in Britain noted that approximately 10% of murders were committed by “people known to have had mental health problems at the time of the offense.” In other words, mentally ill people have more to fear from society than society does from them.
Alcohol and drugs are much more significant contributors to violent crime than mental health status; and if you want a more colorful illustration of how low the risk of violence from mentally ill people is, how about this: you are three times more likely to be hit by lightning than killed by a schizophrenic person. Did I mention that half of police shootings involve mentally ill people, many of whom are killed after their families called for help because of lack of mental health services, or as a result of not understanding orders from police?
The false linkage between violence and mental illness is damaging and stigmatizing for mentally ill people, in addition to being incorrect. And it’s troubling to see it coming up again and again with mass shootings, because it steps around the really serious issue here. Innocent people are dying in the United States not because the country is filled with crazed maniacs armed with automatic weapons, but because of the free and poorly regulated ability of very dangerous weapons. It is this we need to focus on, rather than the distancing tactic of pretending that no one “normal” could do something this awful.
After all, with 25% of the country experiencing mental health issues at any given time, chances are high that more than one person around you has or will have a mental health condition or period of poor mental health. By reinforcing stigma, people make it harder for mentally ill people to access treatment and compassionate care, in addition to directing resources at the wrong problem. If you want to stop violent crime, limit the kinds of weapons people can legally obtain.
Incidents like this leave everyone searching for an explanation for why someone would engage in such a horrific and needless act of violence, but ultimately, the truth is complicated, and often lies locked within the mind of the killer. Working generally on means to reduce the risk factors that lead to mass shootings is important, but we should remember too that some things may never be explained.
Image credit: Motohide Miwa