The Wrong Debate: Mental Illness Does Not Equal Violence
Mira is an alumna of Project HOME. Soft-spoken and always elegantly dressed, she frequently comes back to Project HOME to participate in alumni events, our speakers bureau, and advocacy efforts. On her recent visit, she shared some serious concerns: As she is following the media debate about gun violence, she is worried that the general public is getting a skewed view of mental illness.
The current debate on gun violence is of deep concern to us at Project HOME. The neighborhood where we do our community development work is all too familiar with the crisis of gun violence that has plagued so many Philadelphia neighborhoods. Gunfire is all too common, and shootings and killings are painfully recalled. The tragedy at the elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, resonates agonizingly with this community, which has also had to bury its children.
So we care deeply about sensible policies that can help curb this crisis. We recognize that violence has many roots, including the lack of common-sense gun laws, but also the lack of adequate schooling and economic opportunity, which feeds into family breakdown, addictions, and desperate choices by young people. Throw in a culture rife with violent entertainment, which corrodes our moral sensibilities, and the persistent legacy of racism, which fuels anger and alienation in many young people, and you have a toxic brew – one that claims its victims. (You can read our 2007 statement on violence here.)
Clearly, Adam Lanza, the shooter at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, had serious mental health struggles, as have some other perpetrators of gun violence.
But, as Mira pointed out, we cannot accept a linkage between gun violence and mental illness.
Speaking on WHYY’s “Radio Times” shortly after the Newtown shooting, Joseph Rogers of the Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania raised the following concern: “The push to link mental illness with violence only creates problems for persons with mental illness. It only scares people away from getting services and help that they need. It creates stigma, creates discrimination.” (You can listen to that interview here.)
Joseph is completely right. In a recent article in the American Journal of Psychiatry, the authors report that “the public’s negative attitudes toward persons with serious mental illness are exacerbated by news media accounts of mass shootings involving a shooter with mental illness.” They underscored research that showed that the majority of persons with serious mental health conditions are not violent, and that the relationship between serious mental health issues and gun violence is complex and influenced by factors such as substance use. They raise the concern that deepening prejudice against people with mental health conditions because of media coverage of gun violence could result in more obstacles to mental health treatment.
Harvey Rosenthal, executive director of the New York Association of Psychiatric Rehabilitation, who is himself in recovery from a mental illness, writes in a recent New York Times article, “The recent tragedies in Newtown and elsewhere are especially abhorrent to those of us in the mental health community, particularly since studies have shown that people with mental illness are 12 times more likely to be victims of violence, and no more likely to be violent, if they are not substance abusers. Nonetheless, horrific acts of violence are inevitably associated with mental illnesses, often because the motivations for them seem unfathomable, and they end up getting sensationalized front page coverage.”
The real narrative in terms of mental illness and violence, according to Temple University’s Mark Salzer (also speaking on “Radio Times”), is that persons with mental illnesses are far more often the victims than the perpetrators. Seventy percent of persons with mental health conditions have been victims of physical, emotional, and sexual violence. Meanwhile, another writer recently pointed out a key element in the current gun debate that is being grossly overlooked: the fact that there are nearly twice as many suicides by guns as there are homicides. So we must consider suicide prevention, which often has linkages to mental health conditions, as a key goal in our efforts to reduce gun violence.
Clearly, the real goal is greater access to effective mental health treatment. And if, in the wake of violent incidents, there can be increased public support for treatment, that is positive. But that call for treatment must not be predicated on myths that link mental health conditions and violence. We must not promote treatment for persons with mental illnesses out of a fear for public safety; our advocacy must be based on the humane understanding that anyone who is struggling deserves help, deserves to lead a whole and healthy life. Advocacy for treatment includes advocacy against discrimination and for the full dignity and humanity of persons who happen to have mental health issues.
“I didn’t want to have people with mental health situations categorized by the violence that is going on today,” Mira says. “People are so quick to say that these things are all because of people with mental illness, and use it as a basis of prejudice against people with mental illness who are trying to work through recovery in life.” She believes that the Project HOME community must play a constructive role in the public debate. We invite all of you to raise your voices, advocating for effective mental health treatment on the one hand, and advocating for policies that address gun violence on the other. And we also invite you to confront those myths and stereotypes, and assert what is at the heart of our mission and values: the dignity of each person. Let's support people in their recovery – and support society in its recovery from violence.