Hans Wiik: Mental illness and gun violence — a reality check

Seen on The Daily Camera.

By Hans Wiik

In the wake of recent mass violence, we are once again hearing the often-repeated sentiment: “Keep guns away from the mentally ill and we’ll stop mass shootings.” It is easy to buy into this thinking, because it is difficult to imagine that a mentally healthy person would deliberately kill multiple strangers. However, research has shown mass shootings occur for diverse and complicated reasons — many of which have nothing to do with mental status — and there is no factual evidence directly linking mental illness as a sole factor in mass violence.

However, as the recent Time magazine article “The Dangers of Linking Gun Violence and Mental Illness” points out, people from diverse backgrounds and political beliefs have consistently linked mental illness to mass shootings so much it has become an “illusory truth” — i.e. a false premise that is accepted as true. A 2016 study in the peer-reviewed Health Affairs journal randomly sampled 400 news stories about mental illness, including some from the country’s leading media outlets, and found 38% of the stories linked mental illness to interpersonal violence. Clearly, illusory truth is alive and well in the public’s perception of this issue.

The actual truth is that people with mental illness are up to 25% more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators and are more likely to harm themselves, often using a gun to end their own lives. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, two-thirds of the gun deaths in this country are not mass shootings but suicides. Last year, Mental Health Partners provided services to more than 14,000 residents in Boulder and Broomfield counties. We have no record any of our clients have been involved in an act of mass violence. Unfortunately, some of our clients have tragically died by suicide, with easy access to firearms a key problem.

The widespread tendency to use simple cause-and-effect to link mental illness and gun violence may be an easy way to explain these tragedies and assign blame. But it provides no solutions and has at least three significant unintended consequences:

  • It contributes to the stigma of mental illness, causing people not to seek help from a mental health professional. This is exactly the opposite of what should occur. Individuals, communities and society need to encourage those experiencing mental health issues to seek help, just as we would if someone had cancer, diabetes or heart disease.
  • It increases discrimination against people with mental illness. Although research has shown 46% of Americans will at some time in their lives experience a mental health issue, such as emotional trauma, depression or anxiety, a Kaiser Health poll found 47% of Americans were “very” or “somewhat” uncomfortable living next door to someone with a serious mental illness.
  • It creates a scapegoat mentality that hinders us from looking at the numerous other complex factors that lead to mass violence.

Fortunately, there are ways for us to break through this illusory truth and create real change in our communities. Mental Health Partners, the leading nonprofit and community behavioral health center serving Boulder and Broomfield counties, has embraced several of the National Council for Behavioral Health recommendations outlined its report “Mass Violence in America” to reduce the threat of mass violence. These include:

  • Provide Mental Health First Aid, an eight-hour course that educates people how to respond to a mental health crisis, to all community members, including the marginalized.
  • Collaborate with schools, universities and colleges to provide MHFA training for staff and faculty, implement peer-to-peer trainings and add mental health to school curriculums.
  • Create and support broad community networks between law enforcement, schools, faith organizations and others to collectively increase conversations about mental health and reduce stigma.
  • Ensure these conversations emphasize that most people with mental illness will never become violent and are, often, the most risk to themselves.

Mental Health Partners offers Mental Health First Aid and other similar trainings to individuals and groups. To register or for more information, please visit mhpcolorado.org/training or email trainings@mhpcolorado.org. During the month of October, Mental Health Partners will defray MHFA training costs thanks to proceeds raised from our Second Annual Skyline Traverse Challenge.

As the writer George Bernard Shaw wrote, “Beware of false knowledge — it is more dangerous that ignorance.”  Now, more than ever, we need to come together for a reality check.