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In the Gun Debate, Mental Illness Doesn't Predict Dangerousness

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Fear-mongering masquerading as informed concern is what most politicians and pundits do when it comes to the discussion of mental illness and dangerousness. The new focus on mental illness as the principal culprit behind gun violence is not only without merit, it is discrimination.

A handful of high-profile shootings America has turned the gun debate focus to mental illness. This is absurd. There are 10,000 homicides with a firearm every year in America. Only a small fraction of these are done by people who had mental illness as a factor. Over one recent weekend, more than 60 people were shot in Chicago alone. The media is rightly not focusing on mental illness because it is not a primary factor in gun violence.

The Science

People living with a mental illness are generally no more likely to be violent than someone who does not have a mental illness. And people who are living with a mental illness are more likely to be victims to violence than they are to perpetrate violence.

The times that people with mental illness may become violent may not be too different than when people who don't have mental illness become violent. There are a few exceptions to this, which include when a medication contributes to someone becoming irritable, or when someone doesn't take their medication. Other times, as with paranoid schizophrenia, someone may be acting as they believe in their own self-defense and not as an intentional act of aggression or premeditated malice or forethought.

Politics in Science

There is a lot of legislation that is seeking to keep guns out of the hands of the so-called mentally ill. But who are the mentally ill? Are they people who have anything listed in the DSM? If that is the case, that would include ADHD, learning disorders, or intellectual disorders. It would also include people with a clinical disorder, which is often a temporary disorder (Axis I), or a personality disorder or intellectual disability, which is often a lifelong disorder (Axis II).

  • Do we want to prohibit someone who has PTSD from a firearm? What if it is a war veteran who hunts for food, common throughout the country?
  • Do we want to prohibit someone with postpartum depression from a firearm? How do we monitor that? What if she no longer has it? Should she have to be subjected to increased scrutiny to the point of discrimination or harassment?

The issue that we should be concerned with is not whether or not someone has or had a mental illness. We should be asking: Is the person is a danger to him or herself or to others if he or she had a gun? That is the question. The notion that we can use mental illness as a way to determine that someone is somehow more dangerous is just ill-informed.

The National Institute of Mental Illness estimates that in the past year 26 percent of the population have suffered from a mental illness in one form or another, and about 45 percent have suffered from mental illness at some point in their life. This equates to millions of people who had or have a mental illness. Mental illness as a disqualifying factor to obtain a gun is going to 1) discourage people from seeking treatment for fear of losing their Second Amendment rights, and 2) would exclude and disqualify a lot of people from firearms, which is akin to disarming the citizenry.

This is an important issue to address because people across America, people who should know better, Democrats and Republicans, people who are pro-gun and anti-gun all make the same mistake in stigmatizing against people with mental illness.

Discrimination

Mental illness is an easy villain for both sides of the issue to demonize. The folks on the right see it as a way to shift the focus of gun violence away from the gun and to the person with mental illness and say keep the guns out of "their" hands. Meanwhile, folks on the left seem to think they are more enlightened in their understanding of mental illness and the need for treatment.

The public tends to view anything they don't understand as dangerous. The fear of the unknown is hardwired into our survival instincts. This non-adherence to the facts about the probability of violence in people with a mental illness hurts people who have mental illness. There seems to be this sentiment that we need to be afraid, to be very afraid of "them." This is beneath the dignity of an enlightened and informed society.

While it is true that our prisons are filled with people who are suffering from a mental illness, many of these people are incarcerated for reasons that could have been avoided had they had the proper support and treatment. And there are nearly 20,000 suicides with a firearm every year. This may be a legitimate place to be concerned about depression, bipolar disorder or other similar mental illnesses and access to a firearm. But relatively few people who are depressed or who have bipolar disorder actually commit suicide.

We need to realize that high-profile events are high-profile because they are unlikely. And trying to stop an unlikely event is very difficult if not impossible. Predicting a school shooting or when someone who has or had a mental illness is going to shoot someone is a bit like predicting where lightning is going to strike the ground. There are some generic indicators but little that can act as an actual alarm bell.

There are things that can and should be done to reduce gun violence, but focusing on people with a mental illness is not one of them.

Paul Heroux is a state representative from Massachusetts on the Joint Committee on Mental Health & Substance Abuse. Paul has a bachelor's in psychology and neuroscience from USC, a master's in criminology from the University of Pennsylvania, and a master's in public administration from Harvard. Paul worked in jail and prison before becoming a State Rep. Paul can be reached at paulheroux.mpa@gmail.com or 508-639-9511.