After some recent mass shooting – who knows which one – the Public Religion Research Institute shared an old chart about what Americans think will prevent mass shootings:
Better mental health screening topped everything – in fact, support for every other measure decreased or held steady, including support for stricter gun control.
Last night on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Jeb Bush echoed the idea that mental health is the key to stopping mass shootings:
“I think the next step is to figure out ways to make sure that we know if people have mental health issues, which is really the common denominator of a lot of these violent, tragic cases.”
The narrative seems to be set: We don’t need gun control, we need to get better at figuring out who’s crazy.
The problem is that this is just objectively wrong – and worse, it puts the mentally ill at risk.
Mental health can be very difficult to access in America, and fixing that would be great. And anyone who thinks shooting up a school/church/theater is a good idea could definitely stand for some therapy. But by and large, when it comes to gun violence, focusing on mental illness misses the point.
One large study found that only 4% of incidents of violence, from shoving to armed assault, could be explained by mental illness, and subsequent research has confirmed that number. If we could magically cure all mental illness, we might decrease violence by a tiny percentage, but other factors – particularly drug abuse and poverty – have a vastly bigger impact on the likelihood someone will commit violence.
Most mentally ill people aren’t violent. But mentally ill people are much more likely to be victims of violence themselves – four times more likely, according to one meta-analysis. And a national narrative that assumes mentally ill people are dangerous makes it worse.
26% of the people shot by police this year have shown signs of mental illness, according to the Washington Post. In most of those cases, the police weren’t responding to a crime – they were responding to a call for help getting the person to treatment. But when police see the mentally ill as dangerous, they respond in kind – and that ends badly for the people who need their help.
Earlier this summer, Buzzfeed reported on the shooting of Teresa Sheehan. She was in a residential treatment program, and hadn’t been attending house meetings or eating. When she wielded a fruit knife at a social worker, he called the police to take her to the hospital – and when she closed the door on them, they broke it down and shot her several times.
Yes, we need better mental health care in this country – starting with the people who respond to calls for mental health crisis. Yes, keeping guns away from people suffering from a mental health crisis is a good idea – it would seriously lower suicides. But it’s not going to stop mass shootings, and pretending that it will is dangerous.
When our culture stigmatizes and scapegoats the mentally ill, police officers will see a threat where they should be seeing someone who needs help. Blaming mass shootings on the mentally ill fuels the stigma that puts lives at risk.