If we are going to have a discussion about gun violence and mental illness, we must start with the fact that mass shootings are a rare event. Mass shootings accounted for less than two-tenths of one percent of the homicides in this country between 2000 and 2016. Gun deaths on the other hand happen every day, most of them suicides. In 2017 we had the highest number of gun deaths since 1968 at 39,773 deaths. More than 23,000 of these were suicides.
Each and every time there is a mass shooting, which sadly has been increasing, too many people blame it on mental illness. No one who is sane would do such a thing they say. So, they must be mentally ill. Mental illness is not a vague term, but rather, a whole group of brain-related health conditions that can be diagnosed and treated. Most people with a mental illness are far more likely to be victims of crime than criminals and account for about four percent of violent crime in the United States.
In a study of 63 active shooters and how they behaved before the shooting, the FBI concluded that 16 had a confirmed diagnosis of mental illness. Those doing the study noted that statements that all active shooters have a mental illness “are misleading and unhelpful.”
So, who are these mass shooters? Data tells us that they are from all sorts of backgrounds, mostly male and often have a strong sense of injustice. They feel they have been treated unfairly by society and that no one cares. They may have problems with authority and openly admire mass shooters. They may be seeking revenge and are stressed by a variety of factors including finances, jobs, relationships, the abuse of drugs and alcohol, sexual distress or the stress of caregiving. They may or may not have suffered trauma or abuse as a child.
They probably believe that violent action is an answer to their problems; they have a target in mind; they have access to the weapons they need; and they have no moral or ethical constraints. They may spend time on the internet talking about their grievances, searching out groups of like-minded individuals or could be a lone wolf going his own way. Despite all the descriptions of potential shooters, there are no accurate predictors of future violence.
So what do those of us who care about mental health do both to protect the vulnerable and lessen the violence? Become advocates for rational solutions to the problem of violence and respond to this national moment of fear and unease to make changes.
One obvious way to lower the number of gun deaths is to take away weapons from those who are at risk of committing suicide or doing violence. Several states have already passed what are known as red flag laws, or more accurately, extreme risk protection orders. What the order does is temporarily take away any guns from someone who is deemed to be at risk to himself or others. The law needs to be fairly written to protect a person’s rights, but when properly done can save lives without harming an individual’s liberty. Connecticut and Massachusetts are two states where the law has been mostly used to prevent suicide and domestic violence. Since nearly two-thirds of all gun deaths are due to suicide that would definitely save lives.
Another way to save lives to is to have universal background checks that eliminate all loopholes. Databases need to be improved with every state cooperating by providing information that can not only keep guns out of the hands of felons but those with a severe mental illness who may be dangerous to themselves or others.
We must insist on better funding for mental health programs, particularly community-based programs. Every time there is a crisis, lip service is paid, funding is increased but things go quickly back to normal with budget cuts being the norm. We have the research, the knowledge, the competent staff, just not the will to pay for everything that must be done. These budget increases need to occur at the federal, state and local level.
A MacArthur Violence Risk Assessment showed increased potential for violence when mental illness is accompanied by substance use disorder. The answer is comprehensive treatment both inpatient and outpatient, the use of medication assisted treatment and drug courts to send people to treatment instead of jail. In some cases, the drug use is known but not the underlying mental illness. Both need to be treated. Family, friends and the public must understand that there will be relapses and that is part of the illness.
Mental Health First Aid (visit alexandriava.gov/DCHS) and other programs like it need to be promoted so more members of the public understand what mental illness is and how it can be helped. Families should be taught what warning signs to look for and not be afraid to ask that guns be removed from the home when someone is at risk of suicide or hurting someone else. Free gun locks and medicine safety boxes are now also available from the City through the Lock and Talk Program by calling 703-746-3436.
Constant polling these days tells us that people across the country think access to health care is the most important issue facing us. That concern should include access to mental health care because you can’t separate the two. Perhaps a series of questions on mental health and mental illness should be part of the next set of presidential candidate debates and should also be the subject of local public meetings. The more people learn what mental illness is and that those with such illnesses can be treated and recover, the more they will reject the fear mongering and misinformation.
Mary Anne Weber
Weber, emeritus editor at the Alexandria Gazette Packet and Connection Newspapers, served for ten years, 2006-2016, on the Alexandria Community Services Board (CSB), four as chair.