Stop stigmatizing, start humanizing mental illness

As mass shootings and other incomprehensible events happen so frequently, we search for the guilty, the motive and the solution.

On Oct. 1st, Christopher Harper-Mercer was suspected of killing 10 people in a shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon. It was the 294th shooting this year in which four or more people were killed or injured, classifying it as the 294th mass shooting.

While presidential candidates like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have said mental health problems cause violence, we must not oversimplify this issue as a cause and effect link.

Those who commit mass shootings do tend to have a mental illness of some kind, but the degree to which mental illness negatively affects individuals’ lives is far greater than the harm that mental illness poses to society at large.

Many politicians view gun violence solely through the lens of mental illness, which overlooks the true and accompanying sufferings of depression, victimization and suicide.

Blaming mass shootings on people with severe mental illnesses stigmatizes a marginalized population and  fails to see the complexity of mental health.

In fact, only 4 percent of violent acts in the United States are committed by people with mental illnesses, according to a 2006 study from Oxford University.

Although mental illness can make individuals more prone to aggression, this possibility is not much different than the general population. Studies suggest that the risk of violent behavior increases with the number of psychiatric disorders. However, if we remove other risk factors from the picture, the risk factor for violent behavior among the mentally ill drops to 2 percent.

Perhaps we should examine these other risk factors — which include substance abuse disorders, poverty, unemployment, social relationships, history of violent victimization, exposure to violence or a combination of these factors — before pinpointing the cause of violence to solely a mental illness.

By taking into consideration the social-environmental context of violent behavior in those who have mental illnesses, we can see the broader implications of the violent act itself. Circumstances such as substance abuse disorder and financial insecurity are more likely reasons for individuals to be violent, according to a 2011 report in the Psychiatric times by Mark Ilgen, PhD and Felicia Kleinberg, MSW.

Certainly people with mental illnesses can commit violent acts. Yet, the statistics representing the mentally ill in mass shootings are exceptions to the rule, rather than a reflection of the behavior of the entire population.

It is crucial to understand the difference and not to lump in all those who have mental illness into a minority of instances. To do this, we must destigmatize mental health issues and stop associating mental illness with gun violence.

Ironically, Americans fail to note that people with severe mental illnesses are more than 10 times more likely to be victims of violent crime than the general population, according to research from the MentalHealth.gov website.

On top of this, the most common form of violence associated with mental illness is not against others, but rather against themselves. 

The National Institute of Mental Health reported that suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, which is increasing at the same rate that gun-related homicides are decreasing. While over 41,000 people die by suicide each year in America, 19,000 of those suicides are completed by a gun, accounting for 64 percent of all gun deaths in 2012. One of the biggest factors of suicide is unrecognized and untreated mental illness, which is why treatment and access to mental health care is so important.

But supporting these causes out of the fear of mass shootings and misconceptions of violent crimes and mental illness is simply the wrong way to look at it. We need to accurately portray the needs and issues of those with mental illnesses.

Instead of thinking of mental illness as a cause of violence in society, it is time to look at the causes behind the violence against the individuals struggling with it. From there we can promote treatment for individuals and strive for recovery.

Kirsten Wong primarily writes on social justice issues and education for The Pitt News

Write to her at kew101@pitt.edu.

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