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Mental Illness and Guns Aren't the Enemy: Ignorance Is

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America is saddened by the tragic shooting a Fort Hood on April 2, 2014. The loss of life of anyone is difficult but there is an added level of tragedy when it hits our service members in what should be a safe zone. We can never know what the families of the victims must feel. The family of the shooter is undoubtedly grieving, too.

The focus of many of the news and media stories surrounding this shooting has been to highlight that the shooter, identified as Ivan Lopez by Texas Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, has been said to have had struggles with mental illness. An Iraq War veteran, it is reported that Lopez sought mental health treatment. It is also reported that Lopez saw no combat. It may never be known what role mental illness did or didn't play in this shooting, but it is important to remember that mental disorders are neither necessary, nor sufficient causes of violence.

This salient aspect of Lopez -- his mental health status -- is often looked at first as a reason for why someone goes on a shooting rampage. While this may be a factor, it is important to keep in mind that:
  • Most people living with a mental illness are no more likely to be violent than the general population.
  • People living with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence than to be violent themselves
  • People living with mental illness may become violent because of the way they are improperly treated; it may be a reaction. Other times, a medication may be responsible for a difference in rates of violence in people with mental illness.

Mental illness has been a reason for the NRA to say that gun control should not be the focus after a high profile shooting. I agree with the NRA that top down gun policy isn't effective, but I disagree with the notion that people with mental illness should be treated differently, be it if we are talking about employment, rights or access to guns. The issue with access to guns should not be if the person has a mental illness or not. The issue should be if the person is a danger to oneself and/or a danger to others. That should be the focus. Not if the person has a mental illness.

On the one hand, the several high profile shootings have brought attention to the importance of mental health, I am not sure if these shootings have done so in an effective way. What we should have is compassion and understanding associated with mental illness, not fear.

The issue at Fort Hood may be one of a base policy with respect to access to guns on the base. It may be an issue of the politics of the shooter. It may be one of premeditation and criminal intent or revenge. It may also be one of mental illness. It could be any number of these or other issues in conjunction with one another that are responsible for this recent tragedy.

It is unfortunate that high profile shootings are misinforming -- intentionally or unintentionally -- the public about the relationship between violence and mental illness.

The point of this article is to remind people to keep things in perspective. The incidence of violence among people living with mental illness is extremely low. We should be focused on our misinformation, misconceptions and misunderstanding of mental illness more than we are about the odds of people living with mental illness hurting someone.

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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 can be reached at paulheroux.mpa@gmail.com.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

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