Linking Mental Illness and Gun Violence: A Step Backwards in Combatting Stigma


In the aftermath of a tragedy, scrambling to make sense of the damage is understandable, but this often leads to a “blame game” where cause and effect can be misinterpreted, exaggerated, or simply invented to suit various agendas. As an example, gays suffered the stigma of being the originators and spreaders of AIDS in the 1970s, which neatly fit a homophobic and religious position that homosexuality is inherently wrong and sinful.


In the wake of the shooting at the Uvalde elementary school, the notion that mental illness is the central culprit for the excessive incidence of gun violence in the United States is again being floated as an explanation. This view similarly places blame broadly on a condition and a population already misunderstood and stigmatized, and which contribute only minimally to violence, never mind gun violence. Just as mental illness was beginning to gain recognition as a common phenomenon that requires attention and support for treatment, it now risks being relegated – again – to the realm of the unacceptable, even the criminal.


An estimated 26% of American adults suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. About 3% of people in the U.S. will experience psychosis, which is marked by a loss of touch with reality. Mental illness can range from mild depression and anxiety to severely impairing disorders and psychoses; sufferers do not constitute a monolithic group prone to violence. Associating mental illness with violence blankets all mental illness and those suffering from any kind of mental disorder with stigma at best, and misplaced blame at worst.


According to the National Center for Health Statistics, fewer than 5% of gun-related deaths between 2001 and 2010 were caused by individuals diagnosed with a mental illness. Data from the Epidemiologic Catchment Area studies conducted in the United States (Swanson, 1994) indicate only 4% of violence in the country is attributable to people with a mental illness. Therefore, 96% of all violence in America has nothing to do with mental illness. In fact, research supports the view that the mentally ill are more often victims than perpetrators of violence.


While violence that results in extensive loss of life cannot dismiss mental illness as a causal agent, the public undoubtedly exaggerates both the strength of the relationship between major mental disorders and violence, as well as their own personal risk from the mentally ill. This not only deflects from efforts to effectively identify genuine root causes of gun violence (could it be access to guns and military-style weapons, for example?), but misplaces and generalizes blame, discriminates unfairly, and stigmatizes a diverse population of victims of mental illness – a population that was just beginning to emerge from the shadows as one that warrants understanding, support, and increased access to mental health services, which remain out of reach for most.

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