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Trump’s Plans to Reduce Gun Violence Will Only Hurt Those With Mental Illness

Sometimes the news isn’t as straightforward as it’s made to seem. Renée Fabian, The Mighty’s features editor, explains what to keep in mind if you see this topic or similar stories in your newsfeed. This is The Mighty Takeaway.

Editor's Note

If you experience suicidal thoughts or have lost someone to suicide, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

Following two recent mass shootings on Aug. 3 and 4 in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, President Donald Trump gave a familiar refrain about gun violence — it’s those “crazy” “insane” people with mental illness we have to address to prevent gun violence. It’s almost an exact blueprint of what Trump said following the November 2017 shooting at a church in Sutherland, Texas, and equally as wrong.

“I’ve been speaking to everybody about it and we don’t want to see crazy people owning guns, but I also want to remember that mental illness is something nobody wants to talk about,” Trump said on Thursday. “These people are mentally ill and we need to study that also. … They don’t want to have insane people, dangerous people, really bad people having guns.

Researchers have already broken down the connection between mental health and violence of any type, finding it scant at best. Less than 5% of all violence in the U.S. can be attributed to people with a mental illness, and it’s only one of a combination of factors that contribute to violence. People with mental illness are much more likely to kill themselves with a gun than another person. According to the PEW Research Center, 60% of gun deaths in the United States are the result of suicide.

Trump has signed into law a few productive bills designed to support mental health, including the National Suicide Hotline Improvement Act and an executive order to prevent veteran suicide. But three of the latest mental health proposals — two from Trump and another from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo — want to put in place dangerous laws that will harm people with mental health conditions and do little to prevent gun violence.

Here’s why increasing involuntary commitment for mental health, bringing back mental health institutions and recording people with mental illnesses in a national database are counterproductive and threaten the civil rights and liberties of those of us diagnosed with a mental health condition.

1. Increasing Involuntary Commitment for Mental Health

The first of Trump’s ideas to prevent gun violence is to increase how often we’re involuntarily committing people to mental health hospitals. When we involuntarily force someone into the hospital, we’re stripping them of their rights and agency. Often, it’s treating someone with an illness the same way we look at a criminal sent to jail.

While increased access to affordable, quality mental health care is an important issue, using involuntary commitment as a first-line prevention method is harmful. Mental Health America (MHA) said in a position statement involuntary treatment should only be used as a last resort once all other options are exhausted:

For years, persons with mental health conditions have been combating the centuries-old stereotype that they are not competent enough to make their own decisions or to be in charge of their own mental health care. Today, we know otherwise, that persons with mental health conditions are not only capable of making their own decisions regarding their care, but that mental health treatment and services can only be effective when the consumer embraces it, not when it is coercive and involuntary. Involuntary mental health treatment is a serious curtailment of liberty.

Additionally, sending someone to the hospital involuntarily can create additional risk factors. One 2014 study discovered those who were sent to the hospital involuntarily were more likely to report a lower quality of life afterward and lower self-esteem. People have a higher risk of attempting suicide in the months following discharge. Involuntary commitment isn’t free — high, unexpected health care costs may create a major financial stressor.

A 2018 study found those who were forced into treatment were more likely to say it wasn’t helpful than those who went voluntarily. That same study found people of color are more likely to be involuntarily committed. Meanwhile, according to the Statista Research Department, since 1982, the overwhelming majority of mass shooters are white.

Involuntarily committing people is often traumatizing, and it’s not the most effective tool for most mental health conditions or crises — or for preventing gun violence. Mighty contributor Spencer Nolan shared why in the article, “Reflections on Being Hospitalized After a Mental Health Crisis“:

The two times I was involuntarily committed I was unprepared, and couldn’t speak with my support system beforehand, aside from a single rushed text. This is just as hard on me as it is on them. The way I look at it is this: when you walk into the hospital, you’re either there because you want to get better, or you need a location with the ability and resources to keep you safe. However, in my experience, if you’re there involuntarily, the options become blurred and it becomes less about getting better and more about getting out.

2. Bringing Back Mental Health Institutions

Another one of Trump’s plans to halt gun violence is to reopen psychiatric institutions and head straight back to the 1960s and ’70s.

“If you look at the ’60s and the ’70s, so many of these institutions were closed … and that was a terrible thing for our country,” Trump said before a campaign rally. “A lot of our conversation has to do with the fact that we have to open up institutions. We can’t let these people be on the streets.”

Aside from the fact that Trump’s comment dehumanizes people with mental illness — we are, after all, already among those on the streets, your office, your family, your friends — there’s a good reason mental health institutions were closed. Institutions warehoused those the general public saw as “less than human” and therefore not worth having freedom, agency or, frankly, safety and well-being. Here’s a little history.

Dating back to the mid-1700s, asylums segregated people with mental illness (and anybody with a disability). Because people in institutions weren’t considered as human as everybody else, they become the subjects of experiments, abuse, restraints and neglect, all without consent. New “treatments” like insulin shock therapy or lobotomies were performed as a “cure.” The death rate for experimental treatments was unacceptably high. The patients subjected to these horrific treatments protested but were ultimately ignored.

Starting in the 1960s, mental health institutions were slowly scaled back and people with mental health conditions offered less restrictive care in their communities instead. However, the funding former President Jimmy Carter put in place to support changes to the mental health system was slashed in the 1980s by former President Ronald Regan. Now community hospitals and mental health providers struggle to provide adequate support. A majority of those with mental illness and few resources end up homeless on the streets or in jail.

A return to institutionalization will only further stigmatize people with mental illness and, as history shows us, rarely provides people the treatment they need. People with mental health conditions can and do get better with access to affordable treatment options, community support and connections, and access to basic necessities like food, water and housing. Trying to lock away everyone with a mental illness will do nothing to impact gun violence — because it doesn’t improve anyone’s mental health.

3. Recording People With Mental Illnesses in a National Database

As part of a four-point “Make America Safer Pledge” to reduce gun violence, New York Democratic Governor Cuomo, suggested universal background checks, banning assault weapons, passing a red flag law and, wait for it, creating a national database to record every person in the U.S. who has a mental illness. Like the database that already exists in New York, gun owners and law enforcement can then look up your private health history with the click of a button before you try to purchase a gun.

Such a database at the scope Cuomo proposed seems to violate several federal laws. The Americans With Disabilities Act for one, and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA), which limits who can share your personal health information and when. That said, more extensive background checks for gun purchases are a solid idea, but a mental health database isn’t.

As Sarah Schuster, a mental health advocate who’s reported extensively about mental illness and mass shootings and editorial director of The Mighty’s contributor network, said, tracking mental illness by itself will do little to prevent gun violence. Schuster added:

A national mental illness database wouldn’t even be helpful in preventing mass shootings. That is a fact. Being diagnosed with a mental illness is not a reliable factor in predicting violence. We know this. Interestingly enough though, things like a past history of violence (ie domestic abuse), access to guns and an anti-woman, pro-white supremacy ideology are factors that could much more reliably help us identify who has the potential to commit the kinds of mass murders we’ve been seeing. A mental illness database isn’t only dangerous, it’s illogical, but it’s an easy thing to say when you want to make it look like you’re doing something after a mass shooting while skirting around the issue of guns and domestic terrorism.

Federal law already precludes those judged by a court to be “a mental defective” or “committed to any mental institution” from purchasing a gun. This information is submitted by each state to the FBI’s background check database. But, according to a report by The Atlantic, following the law on who to report is murky at best and states don’t always submit comprehensive information. Plus, we have evidence improving database reporting doesn’t necessarily work.

“In no way does being on a ‘list’ the government has access to help [people with mental illness] receive the health care, dignity and support they deserve,” Schuster said. “If anything, it will push people to become more scared of reaching out for support, and has the potential to multiply the injustices this population already faces.”

What We Can Do

If you live with a mental health condition, it can be upsetting and exhausting to hear so many people talk about you like you’re about to blow up at any moment, especially because we know better. It can feel hopeless, and I am not going to tell you I have the answers, because I don’t. But just remember you’re not alone. You deserve care, kindness and dignity, despite what you might hear in the news and elsewhere.

As for a message to the illustrious politicians currently in charge, Mighty contributor Margy Rydzynski had a suggestion in their article, “Please Stop Scapegoating People With Mental Illness After a Mass Shooting“:

If Congress wants to do something about gun violence, I believe we should deal with the prevalence of guns instead of scapegoating people with mental illness. We’re stigmatized enough as it is. And if you really do want to address issues of mental illness in the United States, put your money where your mouth is. Get guns off the street and fully fund mental health care initiatives. We need clinics and care providers, not Glocks and AR-15s.

If this news is hard for you, you’re not alone. If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

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