What We Really Need to Talk About Regarding Mental Health and Mass Shootings.
Editor’s note: This story reflects an individual’s experience and is not an endorsement from The Mighty. We believe in sharing a variety of perspectives from our community.
Mass shootings are commonplace in the United States these days. One community has barely had a chance to mourn and bury their dead before another incident appears somewhere else on the map. After the school shooting in Parkland, Florida last week, a jaw-dropping statistic began to appear across the internet: In the U.S., there has been a gun incident at a school every 63 hours so far in 2018. That is one every two and a half days.
Everyone is so quick to point fingers and lay blame. One of the biggest scapegoats are those living with a mental illness. Mental illness has become a dirty word.
When someone does something senseless and tragic, one of the first things you hear is that it wouldn’t have happened if not for better mental health treatment. When there is a shooting, people question how someone who was mentally ill had access to guns. When someone drives a vehicle into a crowded area or a parent kills their children, people question why someone who was that mentally ill was even allowed out on the street. People clamor for more laws restricting the rights of the mentally ill for the protection of communities at large. Politicians respond by shouting promises that there will be a change in lieu of this mental health “epidemic.”
As someone who has struggled with mental illness my entire life, what I see are torches and pitchforks; what I am hearing is one step away from “lock all the crazies up for the safety of everyone else!” It is a slippery slope.
Please know that I am in no way disputing that those people who commit senseless atrocities like mass shootings are severely mentally unwell and desperately in need of help. What I am saying is that mental illness exists on a broad spectrum. Mental illness is a term to describe a wide variety of conditions that originate in the brain. The scope of mental illness extends from diseases of the brain and diseases of the mind.
Everyone living with a mental illness is not the same. The Diagnostic and Statistical manual, or DSM, is published by the American Psychiatric Association and is used to diagnose mental illnesses. Yes, there are people with a mental illness who are violent and commit unspeakable acts. It might even be fair to say that someone has to have something wrong in their head to even be able to carry out anything as heinous as a mass shooting. But the majority of people who have been diagnosed with a mental illness are non-violent.
According to recent statistics from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 18.5 percent of adults in the United States, over 43 million people, experience mental illness every year. If a mental illness diagnosis alone was enough to determine a person was dangerous and likely to commit violent acts, with 43 million people living with mental illness every year, the numbers of violent crimes would be astronomical.
The fact is that a recent study published in the American Journal of Public Health shows that a person with mental illness is far more likely to be a victim of violence than the perpetrator. Based on this study’s statistics, almost one-third of adults who have been diagnosed with mental illness had been victimized in some way during the previous six-month period, with over 40 percent being victimized multiple times. Of the 23 percent of mentally ill persons in the study who had committed any sort of violent act in the previous six months, roughly two-thirds of the violence had occurred in a home or other residential setting. A meager 2.6 percent of violence occurred outside the home in a school or workplace environment. The most startling fact to come to light in this study, however, is that the victims of violence were 11 times more likely to commit violent acts themselves afterward
Yes, something has to be done in regards to mental health treatment in the United States, but it is not because the mentally ill population is inherently violent and unsafe to wander the streets unrestricted and unregulated. Mental illness and the way it is regarded in this country is a societal epidemic. Those who have been diagnosed with mental illness must deal with constant stigma. We are ostracized as being “crazy” and “unbalanced,” simultaneously a joke to be mocked and a dangerous monster who needs to be locked up for their own safety and the safety of others. We often hide our diagnosis for fear of judgment or minimize our struggles to reassure others they have nothing to fear or worry about.
The way a mentally ill diagnosis is handled in this country has to change. We need to be able to speak up, speak out and receive the treatment we need. Though NAMI statistics show over 43 million people struggle with mental illness each year, only 41 percent have received treatment for their condition. Roughly one-fourth of the disability applications for Social Security list mental illness as their primary impairment. Though NAMI statistics show that 9.8 million people annually experience a severe mental illness that drastically impairs their ability to function, statistics from the National Institute of Mental Health show that only roughly 2.7 million people are deemed eligible for SSI or SSDI. As I can attest, anyone who is applying for disability due to mental illness is advised to get a lawyer and to expect to be denied at least once, if not multiple times, regardless of how much documentation you have for your diagnosis. Though my mental illness is due in large part to a verifiable genetic mutation I was born with, combined with well-documented trauma, I have been denied multiple times and I’m still deemed ineligible by government standards. For years, I have struggled with red tape, jumping through hoop after hoop, hoping to get the help I need, only to hit brick wall after brick wall, having to begin the process all over again.
The lack of adequate treatment for mental illness in this country has grown rampant. Suicide is currently the 10th highest cause of death in this country, third highest among 10-14 year olds and second highest for 15-24 year olds, according to NAMI statistics. Recently, a video of a disoriented mentally ill woman being cast out on the street by a hospital staff went viral. According to the National Coalition for Homelessness, between 20-25 percent of the homeless population struggles with “a severe form of mental illness.” Mental illness is listed as the third highest cause of homelessness. People are falling through the cracks, wandering the streets untreated; people are dying, our children are dying and yet nothing is being done. The lives of the mentally ill are one by one becoming nothing more than statistics. It should not be so hard to get help in this country.
There are others who are afraid to reach out for help due to government restrictions on the mentally ill. There is an epidemic of mental illness and substance abuse among our military. According to the APA, almost one-quarter of our soldiers, up to 24.4 percent, are struggling with mental illnesses such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A recent study published in Science Daily from The University at Buffalo, observing the mental and physical effects of law enforcement, determined that not only was PTSD and depression a substantial issue, but nearly one-quarter of police officers admitted to suicidal thoughts, much higher than the 13.5 percent of the general population. And these are only the statistics of those who have willingly come forward seeking treatment. Due to the push for politicians to pass laws regulating gun ownership, a mental illness diagnosis could result in losing the right to even own a gun. How do we encourage our soldiers and police officers to get the help they need when it could mean giving up their livelihood in the process?
I personally know many people who are afraid to have a record on file about their struggles with mental illness. They are people who hunt for recreation and are legitimately afraid that a diagnosis would take away their Second Amendment rights and their ability to feed their families. They are people who fear a diagnosis would negatively impact their career or their ability to advance due to the stigma attached. They are people who have seen firsthand how poorly the mentally ill are treated in this country and do not want to be labeled as “crazy and unbalanced” as well. So instead, they struggle in silence, without treatment, until something cracks and breaks.
Yes, I believe there is a mental illness epidemic in this country that is leading to horrifically tragic events. But it is not due to people with mental illness having access to guns, nor is it due to mentally ill people wandering around free and unfettered. It is a direct result of society’s treatment, and lack of treatment thereof, the mentally ill population. Please take a second again and consider the facts.
Fact: Over 43 million people every single year struggle with mental illness.
Fact: Only 40 percent of those with a mental health condition have received medical help for their condition in the last year.
Fact: One-third of people with a mental illness are victimized and abused every six months and those who are victims of abuse are 11 times more likely to commit a violent act themselves.
We desperately need to change how mental illness is viewed and treated in this country. The mentally ill population does not need more restrictions and regulations. We need more access to health care, better support and protections. We need assurances that it is OK to seek help and guarantees that the millions of us with a mental illness diagnosis will not all become vilified due to the actions of a minute few.
We need the stigma and persecution to end and the help and healing to begin.
That is the only way things can change.
This piece originally appeared on Unlovable.
If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.
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