ALUMNI OPINION: The “Gun Problem” Isn’t a “Mental Illness Problem.” It’s Just a “Gun Problem.”
Increasingly, when we talk about gun violence in this country we also talk about mental illness. In many ways, this is not surprising: A number of instances of gun violence are committed by those with untreated, or undiscovered, mental disorders. This has lately led many politicians to place the blame for incidents of gun violence squarely on the lack of resources available for those suffering from mental illness. “It’s a mental illness problem,” Donald Trump recently declared on “Meet the Press” on NBC. “Guns, no guns, doesn’t matter. You have people that are mentally ill and they’re going to come through the cracks and they’re going to do things that people will not even believe are possible.”
And, it seems, most Americans would agree. A joint poll conducted by the Washington Post and ABC News and released last week found that while 82 percent of Americans surveyed thought gun violence is a serious problem, more people—by 2 to 1—believe such violence is a result of inadequate methods and means of treating the mentally ill than of inadequate gun laws. The problem with these findings, though, is that they likely won’t be used to implement, or even argue for better, detection and treatment of those with mental illness. Instead, they’ll be co-opted by politicians—like Trump—who’ll use the survey and others like it as evidence that gun controls are just fine; that, as one site put it, “guns don’t kill people; crazy people do.”
Except that’s not entirely true: The vast majority of gun violence is still committed by people who are not mentally ill. Many incidents are accidents. Many are committed by children who happen upon guns in their/their neighbors’/their relatives’ houses. And many, as we know, are committed by teenagers who are just beginning to show symptoms of the onset of mental illness—cases in which early detection wouldn’t necessarily apply. And, of course, not everyone suffering from mental illness will commit gun violence—in one study, in fact, fewer than 5 percent of gun-related deaths were committed by those diagnosed with mental illness. (As President Obama recently said, “we are not the only country on Earth that has people with mental illnesses… we are the only advanced country on earth that sees these kinds of mass shootings every few months.”) Meanwhile, efforts to imply that all, or even most, incidents of gun violence are at the hands of the mentally ill only serves to increase the stigma directed towards those who suffer, which a 2013 study out of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health acutely confirmed.
So while it’s easy to put the blame for gun violence on the mentally ill—or the lack of support for them—it’s misleading, and ultimately unlikely to do anything to end needless gun-related deaths.
Especially if levels of support for the mentally ill do not change. Because despite all this talk of mental illness in the context of gun violence, few have offered any solutions to problems of inadequate of inaccessible mental health care. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 61.5 million Americans suffer from mental illness in any given year — while the CDC reports that just over a third of people with severe depression had been to see a mental health professional within the previous year — though we rarely hear about this underserved group of people until a tragedy occurs. But for those impacted—as well as for their families—mental illness is an everyday tragedy too often ignored—until, it seems, it’s needed as a scapegoat. As “Last Week Tonight” host John Oliver recently said on his show, “there is nothing like a mass shooting to suddenly spark political interest in mental health.”
That’s because the real motive behind bringing up mental illness in the context of gun violence isn’t to discuss ways we might better the services available to those suffering, but to steer the conversation away from the topic that’s really at hand: that guns are too readily available to too many people. While it’s true that in some cases—some cases—the “crazy person” might pull the trigger, it’s also true that someone else gave the crazy person the gun.
Which is why, if reform is to be had in either or both the spheres of mental health or gun violence, it’s not an either/or blame game: The U.S. needs mental health reform, and it also needs tighter gun laws, and the two need to work in concert to make any sort of impact. There are other ways to make a difference, too. For one thing, manufacturers should be required by law to use available safety technology to prevent accidental deaths. For another, there should be increased funding for medical research on guns, an area of research where there is very little funding at all. But the real, and increasingly untold, story is that there are two concurrent crises going on, and while these two crises occasionally overlap, it’s naïve—and flat out wrong—to think that simply solving one will magically solve the other.
This article originally appeared on November 5, 2015, in the Huffington Post, where Dr. Peggy Drexler is a regular contributor.
Dr. Peggy Drexler (MSW’84) is a writer, psychologist, and gender scholar. She is the author of Our Fathers Ourselves. Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family. She serves as an Assistant Professor of Psychology in Psychiatry, Weill Medical College of Cornell University, and formerly was a Gender Scholar at Stanford University.