KeepHealthCare.ORG – Parkland-inspired law: It’s wrong to equate gun violence with mental illness
Less than four weeks after a gunman killed 17 students and staff at a South Florida high school, Gov. Rick Scott responded on March 9 by signing a public safety act into law. However, the new law wrongfully aims to address gun violence by ameliorating mental illness. “No one with mental issues should have access to guns. Keeping guns away from dangerous people and people with mental issues is what we need to do,” Scott said.
Identifying mental illness as a particularly important risk factor for gun violence, however, is misleading and stigmatizing. The law might actually reduce students’ willingness to seek necessary mental-health treatment by deepening the stigma and reducing students’ privacy.
Blaming mental illness for gun violence holds superficial appeal. A 2015 study found that 22 percent of 235 mass killings were perpetrated by individuals who appeared to have mental-health issues. That reality, paired with sensational media coverage that consistently highlights any possible mental disturbance in perpetrators, reinforces the public’s opinion that mental illness drives mass killings.
But traits other than mental illness are much more common in mass shootings. Nearly 40 percent of perpetrators, for instance, abuse alcohol or drugs. Most perpetrators experience deep hopelessness, feel festering anger and bitterness, and hold paranoid personality traits. It can be difficult to identify a potential mass shooter among the legions of angry, bitter and alienated teenagers. Narrowing our focus to individuals with mental illness, however, is not likely to increase our accuracy.
Especially pernicious has been the public’s — and legislators’ — tendency to transform mental illness into a boogeyman responsible for violence more generally. A national poll from January 2013 reported that 46 percent of respondents believed that “people with serious mental illness are, by far, more dangerous than the general population.”
This broader claim —that mental illness equates to being dangerous — appears to have motivated the new law in Florida. Referrals for mental-health services will now be treated like previous school expulsions, arrests resulting in a charge, and juvenile justice actions: The new law requires each student, when initially registering in a school district, to report any previous referrals for mental-health services. This invasion of students’ privacy will likely deter students from seeking help and instead leave them to suffer alone.
Deterring treatment is the last thing we need. Of children and adolescents who we know need mental-health care, nearly 80 percent don’t get treatment. The federal government has detailed why, noting that, of all 18- to 24-year-olds:
Fewer than half (44.3 percent) believe that someone with a mental illness can be successful at work.Only slightly more than half (55.2 percent) believe that treatment can help people with mental illnesses lead normal lives.Only around 26.9 percent believe that a person with mental illness can eventually recover.
We need to allocate resources to countering these misperceptions so that students feel more comfortable confiding in school counselors and seeking treatment. We should avoid actions that will predictably increase marginalization and fear.
Moreover, the perception that most individuals with mental illness are dangerous is demonstrably false. Research shows that schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression — the mental disorders most frequently associated with violent incidents — account for only about 4 percent of all violent incidents. This means that 96 percent of violence is unrelated to mental illness.
Studies have reached inconsistent findings, but one landmark study found no significant difference in the rates of violence among people with mental illness and other individuals from the same neighborhood. This finding suggests that environmental and social factors — not their illness — might account for violent acts by individuals with mental illness.
On the other hand, other studies have found that people with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia were modestly more likely to commit assaults or other violent crimes. Recent research suggests that mental illness and violence are related primarily through the accumulation of risk factors such as substance abuse, unemployment, poverty and victimization.
To conflate mental illness with being dangerous is stigmatizing and leads to discrimination. While the surge of funding for mental-health resources in schools and communities is welcome and should provide relief to the roughly 25 percent of Floridians with a mental-health issue, these resources came at a high price. Whether the price will surpass the gains will depend on the extent the new law reinforces the falsehood that mental illness equates with being dangerous and whether students are ultimately deterred from seeking help when they need it.
University of Florida Levin College of Law Professor Lea Johnston is the assistant director of the UF Law Criminal Justice Center. She is an expert on mental health and criminal law and procedure.