Don’t Blame Mental Illness for Our Nation’s Gun Violence Epidemic
Today is National Gun Violence Awareness Day, a day set aside to remember and honor the victims to gun violence. Each year in the United States, over 30,000 people die by suicide, homicide, and unintentional firearm injuries. These deaths are preventable, and APA and its members can help.Throughout the month of June, Psychology Benefits Society will feature blog posts by psychologists who are leading the charge against violence in all its forms, with a focus on gun violence. For more information on APA’s efforts to end gun violence, go to our Advocacy page on Gun Violence.
By Joel Dvoskin, PhD, ABPP
After every mass shooting, politicians mindlessly follow the lead of the NRA and call for mental health reform as a panacea for gun violence. This approach to reducing gun deaths is based on the assertion that people with serious mental illness (SMI) pose a special risk of gun violence. Fortunately, there is excellent research on this question, much of it conducted and summarized by Dr. Jeffrey Swanson1 of Duke University. In short, there is no empirical support for the myth that people with SMI have higher rates of gun violence than people without SMI. This inaccurate myth has serious harmful consequences, as it contributes mightily to the stigma already endured by people with SMI in America, who are far more likely to be victims2 than perpetrators of violence. Ironically, stigma is the main thing that keeps people out of treatment.
In short, there is no empirical support for the myth that people with serious mental illness (SMI) have higher rates of gun violence than people without SMI.
The latest NRA ploy is to blame school shootings on Ritalin, despite the lack of evidence to support this ridiculous claim. Whether or not Ritalin is over- or under-prescribed is a question for another day, but it there is no evidence to support the notion that it causes mass shootings. Whether or not someone should take Ritalin or any other drug is a matter for the person, their family, and their mental health providers, but it should never be based on the dangerously inaccurate claims of the NRA.
This myth is fostered by the sensationalistic coverage of mass shootings on cable TV. While sensational accounts are lucrative for the networks, they convince viewers to be scared of the wrong things. TV tells us that our biggest risks are from mass homicide, but mass homicide accounts for less than 1% of all gun homicides in the US. TV tells us that our greatest enemy is so-called assault weapons like the AR-15 or the Bushmaster, but vastly more gun deaths result from handguns than long guns. More importantly, TV tells us that the people we have to fear are people with serious mental illnesses.
The focus on gun homicide blinds us to the far more serious problem of gun suicide. Annually, there are approximately 10,000 or so gun homicides per year, and nearly twice that number of gun suicides, the vast majority of which are committed with handguns. Sadly, we know how to prevent suicides – we just don’t do it.
The public mental health system, which is typically responsible for mental health crisis response, has been devastated by massive budget cuts during the past two decades. As a result, due to low pay, inadequate numbers, and high turnover, the ability of public mental health systems to respond to emotional crises in a timely and competent manner has been compromised. (This is not a criticism of mental health crisis workers, many of whom are truly heroic. It is a criticism of America’s unwillingness to invest in better crisis services). We also need more money to better train other first responders, such as firefighters, emergency teams, and police officers, who confront suicidal despair on a daily basis.
This is not a criticism of mental health crisis workers, many of whom are truly heroic. It is a criticism of America’s unwillingness to invest in better crisis services.
Some would argue that people who really want to die will find another way to do it. Again, consider the data. Roughly, suicide attempts are successful 20% of the time. When a firearm is the method of attempted suicide, the rate of death skyrockets to over 80%. If you want to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people, better targets would be angry people who sometimes drink too much, people who are in extreme situational despair, people who have repetitively injured their intimate partners, and people who are known to be enraged and impulsive.
The problem is not mental illness. The problem is emotional crises fueled by rage, fear, alcohol, and despair. If we can help people to safely navigate the worst moments of their lives, many of them will not go on to end their own lives with a gun, and some of them will not decide to take others along with them.
The problem is not mental illness. The problem is emotional crises fueled by rage, fear, alcohol, and despair.
America gets the crisis mental health services that it deserves… and demands. Please contact your local, state, and national political representatives and tell them they can and must do better.
1Swanson, J. W., McGinty, E. E., Fazel, S., Mays, V. (2015). Mental illness and reduction of gun violence and suicide: bringing epidemiologic research to policy. Annals of Epidemiology, 25(5), 366-376.
2Teplin, L. A., McClelland, G. M., Abram, K. M., & Weiner, D. A. (2005). Crime victimization in adults with severe mental illness. Archives of General Psychiatry, 62(8), 911-921.,
Joel Dvoskin, PhD, is a clinical psychologist, licensed in the State of Arizona since 1981 and the State of New Mexico since 2005. He is a Diplomate in Forensic Psychology of the American Board of Professional Psychology, a Fellow of the American Psychological Association (APA) and the American Psychology-Law Society. Dr. Dvoskin is past President of Division 18 of the American Psychological Association, Psychologists in Public Service, (2000-2001), past President of the American Psychology-Law Society, Division 41 of the APA. He is the former Acting Commissioner of Mental Health for the State of NY and the former Chair of the (Nevada) Governor’s Advisory Council on Behavioral Health and Wellness. Dr. Dvoskin holds a Certificate of Professional Qualification in Psychology from the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards. He is also author of numerous articles and chapters in professional journals and texts, including a number of articles that deal with treatment of persons with serious mental illness and co-occurring substance use disorders. He has been qualified as an expert witness on these and related issues in numerous state and federal courts throughout the United States. Dr. Dvoskin also served as a member of APA’s Policy Review Task Force on the Prediction and Prevention of Gun Violence.
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