Over the past several months, there have been a number of incidents, tragedies actually, involving violence against unarmed, unsuspecting men, women and children. In these cases, some of the first reports that surfaced after the incidents were regarding the fact that the perpetrator “may” have had a background of either untreated or not effectively treated mental illness. In some cases, what the media has been reporting as “mental illness” isn’t actually classified as such. For example, a person with Autism or Asperger’s isn’t classified as mentally ill though many have included these developmental disorders in the mental illness bucket. In all cases, the facts behind the claims of mental illness have never been fully understood.
There have also been quite a few other reports linking the mentally ill to violence and specifically gun violence. In fact, New York State passed gun legislation (January 2013) that includes a requirement for medical personnel, licensed social workers and other mental health services providers to report their mentally ill patients into county-level databases, if they feel the patient may be potentially harmful to themselves or others. The reporting requirement apparently will be used in support of a new portion of the regulation that disallows anyone who has sought treatment for mental illness from legally owning a firearm. The concept is to compare and match current gun owners or new permit requestors to those who are being treated for mental illness. The implication of linking mental illness to guns furthers the misconceptions that those experiencing mental illness challenges are dangerous and likely to cause harm to others.
Interestingly enough, the statistics shed a very different light on the topic. In fact, the data shows clearly that those with mental illness are far more likely to be the victim than the perpetrator of violence. Recent studies have also concluded that the incidents of violent crimes, committed by a person with mental illness, have been decreasing year over year. These studies attribute this decrease to increases in services and support for those who are seeking treatment. The most recent numbers that I have found, attribute only 3% of violent crimes to persons with mental illness. Moreover, drug abuse is associated with violence at nearly triple the rate of that for mental illness. Even when there is a violent tendency associated with a mentally ill person, that violence is most often directed towards themselves, through self-harm or suicide attempts, or directed towards family. This is not to say that someone with mental illness cannot commit violent crime and it is also not a predictor that those who do not have mental illness diagnosis or symptoms will perpetrate violence either. Violence is societal; it’s much more than mental illness, weapons, video gaming or drug abuse. Looking at only one or two aspects of violent behavior, while it can provide intervention steps, does not provide a full view of the issue nor does it allow for solutions to drive change to the root of the problem.
Several months ago I wrote about the Blame, Shame and Stigma around mental illness diagnosis and treatment. As I read the news headlines that are linking mental illness to violence, I cannot help but feel that it only serves to further stigmatize this population of people. This is not an insignificant population either given 25% of the US population (20% in Canada) has been diagnosed with some type of mental illness. Honestly, these statistics are likely skewed because they only reflect data around those who have sought out treatment or support services. When policies and legislation that creates a greater stigma are put in place, the result will likely be less people seeking support. At the end of the day, how does this really fix anything? It would seem to me, it will not.
Please join me in continuing to Stand Up for Mental Health. Each of us can participate in the solutions; each of us can be the voice for change.
Feel free to email me your thoughts and recommendations to firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can always send me an email with any questions regarding this information or any other mental health system question/inquiry.
I’m also on Twitter @farfrmparadise