Stop blaming acts of mass violence on mental illness
By Beth Markley, executive director of NAMI Idaho
In the aftermath of such events as the Uvalde school shooting, come inevitable and inaccurate attempts to pin the blame solely on mental illness. At a press event following the shooting, a senior Texas official said “Anybody who shoots somebody else has a mental health challenge. Period. We as a government need to find a way to target that mental health challenge and to do something about it.”
When it comes to acts of violence, mental illness is a convenient scapegoat. Such claims feed stereotypes that malign an already vulnerable population and regularly fail to spur any meaningful efforts at changing the status quo about how we approach mental health care.
While a small subset of people with serious mental illness may pose increased risks for violence, that violence is generally associated with other factors such as untreated psychosis. Persons with mental illness account for just 4% of violent crimes committed in the US, and just 2% of crimes involving a firearm. While hate and anger, even violent rage, are clearly problems that can lead to terrible outcomes, they are not mental illnesses.
Furthermore, since poor mental health increases a person’s vulnerability to abuse and exploitation, people with mental illness are many times more likely to be victims rather than perpetrators of violence.
Suicide is a clear intersection of gun violence and mental illness. The CDC reports more than 60% of gun deaths in the US were from suicides in 2019. Guns are lethal – 90% of suicide attempts with a gun result in death.
When it comes to horrific acts of violence, pointing a finger at mental illness without any meaningful action to improve mental health support ignores the complexity of the issue and deflects from the public health crisis of gun violence. People everywhere live with mental illness, but no other country regularly experiences mass shootings at the rate of the United States.
If one is truly interested in making life better for people who live with mental illness, there are things that can do more to help than repeating tired tropes that connect it to violence:
Prioritize early diagnosis and treatment of mental health issues. Half of all chronic mental illness begins by the age of 14, three-quarters by the age of 24, yet only a fraction of Idaho children experiencing severe depression received any mental health care last year.
Support efforts that increase access to mental health care. This involves addressing the availability of providers, affordability of care through medical insurance coverage and addressing the availability of care in rural Idaho. Idaho’s executive, legislative and judicial branches collaborated in 2020 to form the Idaho Behavioral Health Council. This council issued a strategic action plan in 2021 that was funded this year and is being implemented by all three branches. This is a great step forward.
End the stigma around mental illness. People living with mental illness are not “monsters.” They’re friends and family members for whom recovery is possible. They need to know they’re not alone and treatment is available. Mental illness is a medical condition, not a choice.
Support federally funded development of research-informed practices to effectively address and reduce gun violence. Engage federal and state legislators in developing meaningful funding and actions to address research-informed practices.
We reject the notion that episodes of mass violence can simply be blamed on mental illness. We agree more must be done when it comes to diagnosis and treatment. NAMI Idaho welcomes the continued opportunity to work with Idaho’s three branches of government on current and future steps for improving mental health services in Idaho.
Beth Markley is the executive director of NAMI Idaho, the state organization of the National Alliance for Mental Illness, which advocates and offers support and education in support of those who have a mental illness and the families and friends who care for them.