Excellent piece about the myth of mental illness and gun violence.
Thanks to our colleagues at NYAPRS for sharing.

Gun Violence: Is Obama Right To Cite Mental Illness?
ByPaul Applebaum and Jeffrey Lieberman Newsweek 1/17/16

In response to the onslaught of repeated shootings across the United States and a demonstrated frustration at the lack of congressional action following the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary in December 2012, President Obama announced a package of executive actions aimed at reducing gun violence.

His orders contained helpful measures to restrict access to and improve the safety of firearms.

A larger number of gun dealers will have to get federal licenses and conduct background checks on their customers.

The FBI will receive 230 additional positions to ensure that background checks can be completed within the three-day window mandated by law.

Research on new technologies to make guns safer—for example, by recognizing their owners—will be accelerated and promises to reduce accidents and theft.

Incongruously, however, the president’s statement also included initiatives directed at people with mental illness, including requesting $500 million in funding from Congress to improve access to mental health treatment (something that should not require violent tragedies to be done).

In addition, the administration issued regulations clarifying that the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act ( HIPAA)—the federal medical privacy law—would not prevent states from reporting persons who were involuntarily hospitalized in psychiatric facilities to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) and therefore ineligible to possess guns.

Furthermore, the president indicated that the Social Security Administration would begin working on procedures to report to the NICS beneficiaries disabled by mental illness who are found to be unable to manage their own funds.

While additional funding for mental health services is welcome, it is concerning that provisions related to people with mental illness are included in a package of initiatives aimed at reducing gun violence.

The president appears to be pandering to the large proportion of Americans who believe that the problem of gun violence is largely due to people with mental illness. The fact that many people hold this view is hardly surprising given that the National Rifle Association and other gun rights groups have hammered it home repeatedly, after every incident of mass violence.

But it could not be further from the truth.

The best data available indicate that about 4 percent of the violence in our country is caused by people with mental illness. Put another way, if the modest effect of mental illness on rates of violence were entirely negated, we would still be left with 96 percent of the violence that we have today.

While data on the use of guns by people with mental illness are harder to come by, there’s reason to suspect that mental illness accounts for even less than 4 percent of gun violence episodes.

Indeed, there are many other groups at substantially higher risk for violence than people with mental illness that are rarely mentioned in the debate over reducing gun violence, including people who abuse alcohol and/or drugs, have anger management problems and past records of violent misdemeanants.

At the same time, the crimes that galvanize public and media attention are the civilian massacres of innocent victims in everyday public settings. And persons with untreated mental illness do account for a greater proportion of these rare but shocking types of crimes, along with ideologically driven terrorists and disgruntled or disaffected persons in the workplace.

We are concerned about the president selectively targeting people with mental illness in his package of executive actions, while ignoring other risk groups because they discriminate against this historically stigmatized population.

If every set of approaches to reduce violence includes measures aimed at people with mental illness, it should be little wonder that the public believes the two are closely related. The effects of these beliefs are evident in surveys showing that most Americans would not want to work or socialize with a person with schizophrenia, and nearly half would prefer not to have such a person as a neighbor.

These attitudes reinforce the social isolation of people struggling with mental illness, and contribute to frequent opposition to the siting of community-based residential facilities.

But that’s not all. By allowing ourselves to focus on a group that accounts for only a tiny proportion of societal violence, we forego policy options that are likely to be much more protective. Any country’s bandwidth for consideration of new policies is limited; if our leaders are distracted by mental illness, they will never get to consider the root cause of the problem.

Consideration of such commonsense initiatives as universal background checks before gun purchases are sidetracked by dubious proposals like adding to the background check system almost a million people who need help managing their Social Security disability payments.

Mental health services in this country are shockingly underfunded, which results in many people who need help not getting it. That is a problem worth addressing, and we await the details of the president’s proposal to improve access and the quality of mental health care.

Improving mental health care, however, is a distinct issue from decreasing gun violence. If we pretend that addressing the first of these issues will solve the other, we are mistaken and playing into the hands of the gun lobby, which flaunts medieval attitudes toward people with mental illness to stymie progress on gun violence.

People with mental illness are an easy target. But encouraging their stigmatization is both cruel and counterproductive.

It’s unfortunate that President Obama missed the opportunity to say clearly to the nation that the cause of the gun violence problem is not mental illness, but a failure of effective regulation of gun access. Let’s hope that our leaders do better in the future.


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