When I hear or read about mental health and gun violence, I can become defensive. And here is why.
We know that in a survey, 60% of Americans thought that people with schizophrenia were likely to act violently toward someone else, while 32% thought that people with major depression were likely to do so. I intend to challenge those perceptions with what is real and accurate.
In a 2014 survey of 10,000 individuals (both those who live with mental illness and those who do not), taking all of the incidents of violence reported among the people in the survey, found mental illness alone could explain only 4% of the incidents. Then breaking that down, if a person did not fit in any of the following categories--male, poor, living in a disadvantaged community, and are abusing alcohol or illegal drugs--then mental illness was highly unlikely to be predictive of violence, and the percentage could go down to 2%. So when anyone says people with mental illness are all dangerous, the truth is the vast majority are not. Making persons who have a mental illness scapegoats for gun violence may be convenient, but it’s flat-out wrong and won’t make anyone safer.
We know that people with severe mental illness are two and a half times more likely to be attacked, raped, or mugged than the general population. Individuals with schizophrenia, for example, are at least 14 times more likely to be victims of a violent crime than to be arrested for one. If we are going to live for the common good, we will act to protect those who are so stigmatized by the media and vilified by the public.
We know that 87 to 90 percent of persons who end their life have a mental illness diagnosis. And of all suicides, 61 percent involve the use of guns. So when we hear of the connection of mental illness and violence, we need to know that the largest numbers of incidents of persons who have a mental illness who are involved in gun violence are self-inflicted, not in mass shootings where the publicity inflates the fears.
Inadequate Funding for the Vision
Many people do not know about the tragic history of mental health treatment from the 50’s to the 70’s when our country began to deinstitutionalize people from mental hospitals, which were often called "asylums". Many of them were cruel and unusual punishments imbued with hostile judgment, isolation and were warehouses of human beings. The thought or hope at that time was that releasing these people would mean that they would be treated with more compassion, and they could go to their home communities to find local community mental health services. The idea was that services would be more flexible, with a more personal touch, with freedom to engage in society. Well, the funding did not underwrite that vision and even the insurance limitations became a barrier, so to this day the mental health system is frayed, broken in many places, and is always scrambling for funding. We are living with that historical tragedy.
We know that mental illnesses are real, treatable, and manageable conditions caused by genetic, biological, or environmental factors, or some combination of all three. Recently, NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) announced the results of a groundbreaking study that shows that “people who had schizophrenia were more likely to have a certain type of a gene that promotes neural ‘pruning.’ We don’t use the term ‘chemical imbalance’ anymore to explain how schizophrenia develops. We need to understand neural networks-how neurons relate and communicate.” This IS brain science. Larson and Bergin wrote, though “the disease model has significantly reduced the stigma associated with mental illness and has enabled many to have an enhanced recovery, the focus on medical treatment has placed mental illness beyond the direct attention of faith communities. This is unfortunate because research has shown that a spiritual support system is critical to the recovery of many people who have a mental illness.”
The Importance of Faith Communities
I am a person of faith, and there is minimal attention in faith traditions or in faith communities to address mental illness, and to act to be inclusive and welcoming of everyone. There are too many faith communities which have put up barriers to those who are living with a mental health condition creating even more isolation and alienation, and they often also turn aside from the loved ones of those who live with mental illness. I am defensive because I believe my faith tradition, based in compassionate care, justice, and inclusivity, ought to be in the vanguard of actions to overcome fear and offer hospitality. In the wonderful multi-faith resource, developed by 32 national religious organizations, Grounded in Faith: Resources on Mental Health and Gun Violence, we read, “We are to treat people with dignity and respect, especially people on the margins of society.”
I am defensive because I am the father of a son who has lived with mental illness/brain disease/psychiatric disorder for 27 of his 45 years. Having been in hospital locked rooms for up to 20 times over those years, many times he was taken to the hospital (rather than to jail) by the police. I have come to appreciate the Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) given to police officers. CIT-trained police are alert to the signs of mental health challenges which could deflate the tension in some situations. This is a resource offered to police across the country. The decision to take the person to the hospital rather than to jail can be critical to a person’s recovery.
Stigma is the word which is used to describe the wall which is built between people, between those who categorize others as “other” people because of their differences in appearance, ability, culture or any other characterization. In the MHFA (Mental Health First Aid) program, we read, “Stigma is a cluster of negative attitudes and beliefs that motivate the public to fear, reject, avoid, and discriminate against people with mental illnesses.” It goes on, “stigma is not only a barrier to recovery; it is the single biggest barrier to recovery. Fighting the stigma and shame associated with mental illness is often more difficult that battling the illness itself.”
I hope that some of what I have just shared can dispel some misunderstandings you might have. While I could continue with more facts and figures, I am always concerned about what actually can shape a person’s actions. I want to give some suggestions as to how to engage this topic in a supportive and positive way. Faith communities can be a resource in a variety of ways to address these topics about which we have been talking. Here is my list of actions.
Education and Awareness
There can be positive results by having faith communities provide opportunities to learn about mental health and about suicide prevention. There are local programs and organizations which can be approached so as to become aware. Looking around in your community, I hope there are local teams which can offer a workshop or a panel of people immersed in the topic of brain disorders/mental illness for conversation and dialogue.
We need to know that 1 in 4 adults experience a mental health condition in differing levels of severity in a given year. One in 17 persons lives with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, major depression or bipolar disorder. I would venture to say that almost everyone knows a loved one or a colleague or a friend who has been affected by a mental health challenge. We can break the silence on this subject in part by understanding more.
Sue Klebold (mother of Dylan who died in a suicide-homicide at Columbine) was quoted as saying “(I) missed the warning signs of (my) son’s depression, and the suicidal urges that accompanied it, because (I) didn’t know how to look for them.” Seventeen years after Columbine, she writes about her exploration not only about her own grief at losing a child but also her continuing education in mental health issues and suicide prevention. (A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy.) All of us could use continuing education, which is available, through MHFA or NAMI as well as from this book.
Advocates for Justice
We can be advocates for justice. There are major legislative bills dealing with mental health issues in congress. You can learn about them and advocate for them. Some of the topics are expanding Medicaid funding; funding more psychiatric beds. Controversial issues such as addressing the privacy restrictions for family to be helpful, and issues of assisted outpatient treatment (AOT). The most glaring issue in American mental health policy is the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion. It remains the single most important measure to expand access to mental health and addiction treatment, serving severely vulnerable populations such as persons who are homeless, and addressing the complicated medical and psychiatric difficulties of many young men cycling through our jails and prisons. Can we not actively support it?
We can bring our support to those who are seeking to alleviate the local frustration about mental health services. We are appreciative of the state of Colorado making $24 million available for walk-in mental health treatment centers, Crisis Stabilization Units across the state. In Klebold’s book she says, “There is, in particular, an overlap between brain health issues and mass shootings.” (An examination of 37 school attacks hopes to prevent others in the future.) The researchers found that “most attackers showed some history of suicidal attempts or thoughts, or a history of feeling extreme depression or desperation.” Access to brain health screening and treatment, then, is critical in preventing violence as well as suicide, eating disorders, drug and alcohol abuse and a host of other dangers threatening teens. Better access to these resources may not be “the “answer, but’s pretty close to one.
We know that the largest mental institutions now are our prisons and jails, the top three being the LA county jail, Rikers Island (NYC), and Cook County Jail (Chicago), where mental health services are minimal at least. There are 10 times more people with mental illness being “treated” in jails and prisons (2 million) than there are in state-funded psychiatric treatment. If we dare to care about those who are incarcerated, then the support for in jail treatment as well as release programs for reintegration needs to grow.