In the wake of the Parkland shooting and the March for Our Lives, we want to quote Slate writer Laura Hayes: “Mentally ill people aren’t killers. Angry people are.”
So much of the conversation about school safety and gun violence prevention is being centered around mental illness. But in reality, mental illness is not the problem that is causing mass shootings. Paolo del Vecchio of the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has said, “Violence by those with mental illness is so small that even if you could somehow cure it all, 95 percent of violent crime would still exist.”
In other words, the vast majority of mentally ill people are not violent. As Julie Beck writes in “The Atlantic,” the truth is that in the infrequent instance that a person with mental illness becomes violent, they are much more likely to harm themself than someone else. And Joel Miller of the American Mental Health Counselors Association notes that, “People with serious mental illness are far more likely to be victims of violence, including but not limited to firearm violence, than the perpetrators of violent acts….Rates of violent crime victimization are 12 times higher among the population of persons with serious mental illness than among the overall U.S. population.”
That the national conversation around gun safety and mass shootings continues to revolve around mental illness says a lot about lingering stigma. Here in North Carolina, our legislators recently met to begin discussing how to prevent mass school shootings in our state. The legislators focused largely on improving mental health services in schools. This focus is echoed in the larger, national legislative discussion. House Speaker Paul Ryan, for example, said, “Mental health is often a big problem underlying these tragedies.” Again, this simply isn’t true. While improving mental health concerns is necessary and important work, it shouldn’t be addressed within the context of preventing school shootings. This is misleading and distracts us from the real problems.
“We have a strong responsibility as researchers who study mental illness to try to debunk that myth,” says Jeffrey Swanson, a professor of psychiatry at Duke University. “I say as loudly and as strongly and as frequently as I can, that mental illness is not a very big part of the problem of gun violence in the United States.”
As Hayes points out, one of the largest contributors to mass shootings is uncontrolled anger. She writes, “The attribution of violent crime to people diagnosed with mental illness is increasing stigmatization of the mentally ill while virtually no effort is being made to address the much broader cultural problem of anger management. This broader problem encompasses not just mass murders but violence toward children and spouses, rape, road rage, assault, and violent robberies. We are a culture awash in anger.”
Hayes also points out that we need to focus on developing anger management skills as a culture, as it is not getting the attention that it deserves. In “Psychology Today,” Dr. Stephen Diamond writes, “Curiously, despite the clearly raging epidemic of anger-fueled violence in America and abroad, the almost one-thousand pages of the American Psychiatric Association’s official diagnostic manual, the DSM-IV-TR, contain only a handful of diagnoses capable of accurately addressing this disturbing and growing phenomenon. This is a serious omission, demanding immediate attention.”
Miller also adds that the conversation needs to include firearms prohibitions. He suggests that we work to ensure that individuals with a history of violent behavior cannot access firearms. “Specifically, individuals convicted of violent misdemeanor crimes and those subject to ex parte domestic violence restraining orders should be temporarily prohibited from purchasing or possessing firearms.” Likewise with “individuals with a history of risky substance use, which heightens risk of violence toward others…Specifically, individuals convicted of multiple DWIs or DUIs and multiple misdemeanor crimes involving controlled substances should be temporarily prohibited from purchasing or possessing firearms.”
There are urgent, practical steps that we as a culture need to take in order to quell this wave of mass shootings. But until we are able to focus on the right problems, we won’t be able to find effective solutions.