How The Gun Debate is Hurting the Mental Health Community

Before I begin this post, I must start by saying that I lament the tragedy that occurred over this week and the hundreds of similar stories we have heard like it over the years. Each of those who have been a victim of these acts of senseless violence deserve better from their communities and from our lawmakers. For this reason, I support the understanding of gun violence and prevention research. I believe our representatives should look at our gun policies and make a few changes. So, there is my bias. 

But, that is not why I am writing this.

I am writing this because of something that is often associated with these tragedies... 

Mental health.

In 2018, 1 in 5 American adults suffer from mental illness and depression and suicide rates have increased in youth over 3% since 2015. Since the passing of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, more Americans have had access to mental health care more than ever before, but the growing number of mental illness sufferers outpace the number of licensed mental health professionals including psychiatrists, psychiatric nurses, counselors, psychologists, and social workers combined. Our nation is in a mental health workforce shortage and many are going untreated due to lack of care available and stigma (Mental Health in America, 2018).

Stigmas around mental health include being hard to be friends with, believing the illness is self-inflicted, and that many sufferers were simply "making up" their symptoms. Although any stigma is problematic, one of the most common stigmas is that people with mental health disorders including alcohol dependency, schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder were dangerous (Crisp, Gelder, Rix, Meltzer et al., 2000; Bryne, 1997; Heginbotham, 1998). 

Untreated mental illness can lead to unemployment, separation from families or communities, abuse, but treatment allows most mental illness patients to lead normal and healthy lives. Knowing the importance of having mental health treatments and early detection, I support researching and finding new ways to tackle mental health in American. 

But before we lump the entire mental health community, gun violence, and evil into one...allow me to say a few things. 

Blaming violence solely on mental health can cause stigma and misunderstanding for those in the mental health community who are considering seeking treatment and those who have overcome important hurdles. 

As a suicide survivor, and depression and anxiety sufferer, I have never tried to hurt, injure, or harm someone and according to researchers, I am not alone. 

"The overwhelming majority of people with mental illnesses are not violent, just like the overwhelming majority of all people are not violent. Only 4 percent of the violence—not just gun violence, but any kind—in the United States is attributable to schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or depression (the three most-cited mental illnesses in conjunction with violence). In other words, 96 percent of the violence in America has nothing to do with mental illness." (NAMI, 2017)

Being diagnosed with a mental illness does NOT mean you are more prone to violent behaviors. 

There are many contributing factors to violent behavior beyond mental illness. Many researchers link long-term exposure to violent media may lead to aggressive behaviors. Highly aggressive children are unable to utilize empathy (hurting when someone else hurts) because they are developed in the same part of the brain. Think of aggression and empathy as playing a game of tug-o-war in the brain and only one can be the winner. Aggressive behaviors without the ability to be empathetic can lead to violent and unapologetic acts of violence or behavior. In contrast, some emerging research is finding that those in the mental health community who are or have sought treatment tend to be more empathetic than those who have not experienced a mental illness (Adrian Furnham, Ph.D.; Paula Sjokvist, BSc, UCL, 2017). 

Another thing to note is access to hate or militant groups online can negatively influence judgment and thought, and sex and power differences (93.3% of prisoners in federal prison are men). All of that is meant to say...we need more research to understand how society, media, environment, parenting, and communication is developing our behaviors (violent or otherwise). 

So where are we?

In order to move forward, we must stop painting a broad stroke of mental health. It only perpetuates stigmas that discourage people from getting the help they need. 

I want to say one thing that I think it is important for you to hear:

The depression, anguish, and disease that ended the life of Robin Williams IS NOT the same evil, distortion, and illness that walked into a school in Parkland, Florida and took the lives of 17 people.

There isn't an easy fix for understanding senseless violence, but we shouldn't punish the entire mental health community for the crimes of criminals in the same way we should not punish all gun holders. Even so, we must lean into the nuance. We need more research into how aggression is developed in Western culture, what sort of gun reforms might prevent violent crimes, and how we as communities can change. 

We must continue to fight for the mental health community, we must protect our homes and children, we must lobby for gun reform, we must fight hate and oppressive groups who exist on and offline, we must provide teachers with behavior de-escalation tactics, and we must fight for love, empathy, and truth.