Approximately 5 years ago I added “gun violence and mental illness” to my list of things I wanted to blog about. The fact that the topic is still relevant now says a lot in itself.
Firstly here’s two things you should know about me before we get into this: I’m mentally ill and British.
Content warning: mention of suicide and method, gun violence.
Something none of us want to accept is that sane people do horrific things. It’s terrifying to wrestle with the idea that we are all capable of heinous things in the right (or wrong) circumstances.
I remember learning about the Milgram experiment’s attempt to prove that Nazis were just an evil breed of human, that most people wouldn’t harm others no matter who told them to. Turns out most of us are prepared to inflict serious pain or even death on others just because someone in authority told us to.
Good people, the people who show up to work and take care of their friends and donate to charity, are capable of doing very bad things. Yes it’s terrifying but it’s true and fuelling the stigma around mental illness won’t change it.
But mentally ill people are more violent, right?
Well actually, no. In fact people with a mental illness are far more likely to be victim of crime than the perpetrator. According to one study “mental disorders are neither necessary, nor sufficient causes of violence” and the book “Mass shootings and mental illness” found that mass shootings by people with serious mental illness represent less than 1% of all yearly gun-related homicides. In fact we, the people who you’d like to blame for all your gun related deaths, are far more likely to kill ourselves than anybody else and those suicides account for over half of US firearms–related fatalities.
But no matter how many of these studies come out the narrative remains the same; the murderer must be “unhinged,” “unstable” or maybe they were just briefly “out of their mind.” Mental illness is not a synonym for evil and implying it is only increases the stigma.
What’s the problem with stigma?
Stigma isn’t the biggest issue for most mentally ill people in my opinion, lack of access to appropriate support, healthcare providers who buy into the stigma and a lack of knowledge about the brain is much more pressing, but stigma is still a big problem.
Stigma has a real world impact on the lives of people with mental illnesses and there is evidence that fear of mentally ill people being violent is increasing.
Stigma isn’t only present in the general population, many health professionals also buy into the, often disproven, things that get spouted about mental illness. It also impacts government policy as those in power try to win votes by “protecting” the public from mentally ill people and this often looks like forcing treatment on people.
By 2018 over 60% of respondents saw people who met criteria for schizophrenia as dangerous to others, and 44–59% supported coercive treatment.
Unfortunately many mental health professionals still don’t work with their patients to find a great care plan and there are plenty of stories of, primarily those assigned female at birth, who don’t just smile and nod and do what their psychiatrist says being labelled “uncooperative” or even refused further treatment. We should be part of the discussion about what our treatment plans look like, we should be allowed to say “no” to treatment that we don’t want and we should be listened to when we suggest things that we feel may help.
Healthcare professionals are just humans, they have the same biases as anyone else and the increase in stigma only leads to more people having treatments forced on them to make them more “manageable” for others, with no long term solution or desire to help the person who is suffering.
Stigma also leads to barriers and restrictions being put in place for mentally ill people to access things. Be that who they can work with or be around (nobody wants the crazies around kids), what jobs they can do (disclosing a mental illness if you work in healthcare could cost you your job), and even limited access to your prescribed medication.
One of the things that helps many people who live with a mental illness is community; being connected to and accepted by others. For a variety of reasons, having those relationships is often hugely beneficial and recommended as part of recovery (I use “recovery” to mean living a life you want and managing your symptoms, not no longer having a mental illness).
The fear of people with mental illnesses means making those connections can be very difficult and also emotionally risky. Opening up to someone you trust only to be rejected or looked at with fear can be incredibly damaging to someone who is still in the process of accepting themselves and learning how to manage their illness.
And here’s the kicker, stigma stops people from getting diagnosed and getting help, and if they’re not diagnosed it won’t show up on a background check before they buy a gun.
Facing the actual fear.
Facing the truth is hard; accepting that Auntie Jane or Ken next door could just have a string of bad things happen and shoot someone because of it is scary. It makes us feel like we can’t trust anybody, nobody is safe, but that is the reality and we have to learn how to be OK with that.
It’s so much easier to refuse to have mentally ill people in your life, to force medication on them and to keep on believing that sane people don’t do bad things but we can’t take steps to reduce gun violence until we accept who actually commits it.