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While the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has estimated that nearly 1 in 5 people experience some form of mental illness in any given year, other research has found that fewer than 3 to 5 percent of crimes in the United States involve someone with a diagnosable mental illness. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, fewer than 5 percent of the 120,000 gun-related killings in the United States between 2001 and 2010 were perpetrated by someone diagnosed with a mental illness. At the same time, another study found that about 1 in 4 people with a serious mental illness had been victims of violent crime in the previous year—a rate more than 11 times higher than for the general population. In short, people with a lived experience of mental illness are far more likely to be victims of violent crime than perpetrators of it.
Yet both sides of the political spectrum have advanced (or at least accepted) the conflation of gun violence and mental illness for their own purposes. Referring to gun violence in an October 2015 interview with George Stephanopoulos, then-candidate Donald Trump said, “This isn’t guns. This is about, really, mental illness.” On the opposite side of political spectrum, President Obama quietly signed an executive order in the waning days of his administration to implement a Social Security Administration rule restricting gun ownership from certain individuals with a diagnosed mental illness. This action essentially (if unintentionally) lumped them into the same category as convicted felons and potential terrorists.
Allowing this false narrative to continue is damaging in two important ways: It diverts attention away from policies that might actually address gun violence or mental illness, and it reinforces the discrimination that discourages many people from seeking or accepting help when confronted with a mental health challenge (which are very treatable).
Unfortunately, even gun violence prevention and mental health advocates have demonstrated a willingness to conflate the issues of mental illness and gun safety for their own purposes. Linking mental illness to a high-profile public safety and public health crisis has allowed progressive supporters of gun safety to find common ground with conservatives on what they see as winnable policy battles; it has also allowed mental health advocates to draw attention and much-needed resources to the prevention and treatment of mental illnesses.
Building sustainable public will for mental health prevention and treatment—and for reasonable gun safety policy—won’t happen overnight. It will require a sustained investment not just in influencing policymakers or legacy media coverage, but in engaging community-based organizations and champions that can authentically carry the message while simultaneously providing people in communities with something actionable to do, whether it’s rallying in the town square for passage of a specific policy, or reaching out for mental health services or support if they need it.
There’s no choice but to try. The false narrative conflating gun violence and mental illness won’t go away by itself. False narratives never do.