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The Misconception About Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Updated: 4 days ago

Linking gun violence to individuals with mental illness perpetuates stigma and hinders the road to recovery.

Every day, VIABILITY staff witness the incredible ability of people living with mental health conditions reclaim their lives and demonstrate that recovery is possible.

Over the last several years, state and federal governments have created policies and funded services that focus on recovery and rehabilitation, rather than just hospitalization and medication.

There has been a public outcry to fix the mental health system in our country and provide more mental health resources for those who struggle with mental illness.

But …

Social progress to eliminate fear and stigma affixed to people with mental illness comes to a screeching halt when we are faced with tragedy. Gun violence.

When it comes to dealing with the increasing epidemic of mass shootings, our society regresses to blaming – targeting vulnerable populations and demonizing the struggles they go through. Because relying on a scapegoat is easier than facing the truth.

It is wrong to point the finger and say let’s fix THEM. Instead of saying it is US. All of us. It is structural inequities, it is racism and xenophobia, it is polarizing political stances, it is social media and the rapid sharing of misinformation. Assigning blame to people with mental illness just avoids our own responsibility for real social change to fight gun violence and create safer communities.

There is little to no evidence of a correlation between mental illness and gun violence. The struggles of people with mental illness affect them inwardly, resulting in isolation and feelings of hopelessness. They are often the victims of violence themselves. Because their struggles include poverty, homelessness, transient lifestyles, and substance use, people with mental illness are two-and-a-half times more likely to be victims of assault, domestic violence, and other violence related crimes.

According to the Institute of Medicine:

“[T]he magnitude of the relationship [between mental illness and gun violence] is greatly exaggerated in the minds of the general population. In fact, the contribution to violence made by persons with mental illness is no larger than the contribution made by persons who do not have a mental illness, with other demographic and socioeconomic factors contributing much more than mental illness. The group most at risk for committing violent acts is actually young and single working-class white males. However, public opinion surveys suggest that many people think that mental illness and violence go hand in hand …This public perception does not reflect reality – most individuals with psychiatric conditions are not violent.”

Public policy discussions about guns need to focus more on the root causes of violence, not perpetuate the public perception and stigma that hinders the road to recovery for people with mental illness. One in five Americans live with a mental illness; they are your friends, co-workers, and family members. Foster your relationships with them, listen to their stories, and acknowledge their success and triumphs to help open the hearts and minds of others about what is necessary in our society to assist and support people living with mental illness.

The more we can remove labels, understand the facts, and embrace the reality that people do recover from mental illness, the more likely it will be that individuals share their stories, openly admit they are struggling, and accept the support they need.