Gun violence & mental illness

Note: this post discusses violence with weapons and death by suicide.

The US has an absurd rate of gun deaths – by accident, deliberate homicide or suicide (again, deliberate or accidental):

“[we could] expect a country’s rate of gun violence deaths to be based solely on its socioeconomic status. By that measure, the U.S. should only be seeing .79 deaths per 100,000 people — almost five times less than its actual rate of 3.85 deaths per 100,000.”

Image of a protester holding up a sign which reads “HOW MANY MORE?” and is made up of a collage of gun violence victims.

Whenever a high-profile shooting occurs (and they’re so common, every week if not every day, that we have different categories like where did the shooting happen, who perpetrated it and why, how many victims were there; one, several or tens/a mass, and was there some kind of statement being made) people are very quick to blame something other than the access to weapons: mental illness. 

But I wish people would stop doing this…

That’s not how mental illness works. It doesn’t make people violent on the whole. Other things do that; anger, despair, rage, resentment, hate, abuse, disadvantage and poverty – none of those are necessarily symptoms of a mental illness. Maybe you reach for this ‘explanation’ because you can’t imagine yourself doing it, but guess what, around 1/4 people have some mental health issue and the vast majority feel exactly the same as you about it.

Part of the issue of gun violence that is overlooked is the serious toll it takes on people suffering from mental illness – or how it affects everyone’s wellbeing. Depression and related disorders often wear people down over their lifetimes and even with strong support, therapy and/or medication, it can still be fatal. Frequent retraumatisation is yet more pressure.

Obviously, the nature of guns means any attempt to harm oneself (a potential symptom of illnesses like depression) using these weapons is far more likely to result in death than other methods; coupled with the fact that it’s instant and something people may do in the spur of the moment – even if they do not ultimately wish to die, but have reached a low point and made a decision to act – there’s rarely any coming back from it. Unlike methods seen elsewhere, where guns are less or not available, from which people can actually recover.

Stigmatising the unwell

We hope people recover from other illnesses, why resign ourselves to fatality with depressive disorders? Gun availability is just further victimisation of the mentally ill. Over 50 people a day end their lives with a gun in the USA; more than a third of the total gun deaths daily.

In addition, people with a mental illness diagnosis are far more likely to be harmed than do harm; that’s a huge umbrella for many different conditions, too. Anyone who has endured abuse or traumatic events in their lives is likely to suffer from PTSD; whether veterans, sexual assault survivors or any other type of trauma. It requires appropriate care.

Depression, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, anxiety, schizophrenia and more are all very different things. “Mentally ill” means very little. Except that you’re at risk of violence from others and not getting the treatment you need to live a happier, safer, longer life.

Whenever your fear of the mentally ill surfaces, instead of using such a huge, diverse group of people as a scapegoat, try campaigning for funding mental health services – if you’ve ever said “You/they need help”, why not try to make sure that help is available? It’s all very well telling everyone to talk, but what’s needed is treatments and support, which costs money. The more these things are underfunded, the more people will suffer untreated. Whether you believe what’s here or not, that remains a problem.

Stop stigmatising people. Murderers don’t have to be mentally ill, and if they are, it may well not be the direct cause of their violence anyway. So stop claiming that it is.

Reading list

Try absorbing some professional opinions and further run-downs of this issue before you dismiss it. It’s important.

As a related aside: people like to complain when this characterisation is challenged and say things like “Well it’s not like we want to lock everyone up”.

Except, that is exactly what happened and still does and within that, severe abuse and torture. Not only that, Trump is prone to talking about things as if they’re good ideas when they really really aren’t. Mental asylums are not something we should be considering as an option for our supposedly civilised societies.

Prisons are bad enough. Locking people up Minority Report style because they have an illness that people are afraid of, and can’t be bothered to learn about/provide any effective treatment (not to mention fund it and make it accessible), preferring to scapegoat them instead? That is not a good plan. Mental illness does not discriminate – it can be any of us, but personal defence should not be the only reason we oppose these measures.

All human beings deserve freedom from torture and imprisonment. Don’t assume you’d be spared.

Challenging the way groups of people are discussed is one way we can all help prevent dehumanisation and inhumane policies.

The Coalition To Stop Gun Violence

Edit 2019: importantly, in the wake of several shootings in a fortnight, one occurring one day after I attended the festival location, this whole topic is a massive distraction from the array of problems and views these men tend to have.

Namely, that they’re extremely hateful (especially racist and misogynist, which are peas in a pod). That is not a symptom of any mental illness – they seek out communities and learn hate from them. Plus, someone with a lot of power is literally encouraging them to shoot people in groups who are repeatedly dehumanised and demonised.

Edit 2022: Also, they’re living in the US. You can’t take the cultural and political contexts away from these incidents, as it’s a unique catalyst for these things, when coupled with gun ownership and availability, and state-by-state rules. Mental illness is not the problem just as guns aren’t (alone), but addressing both is a good idea – it’ll just take more even than that to cure these ills, if it’s even possible.

Obviously don’t read some of these if you’re not feeling up to it.

Other relevant pieces:

Other relevant things I’ve written:

2 thoughts on “Gun violence & mental illness

  1. Pingback: Fear, Anger, Hate, Suffering – Purely a figment of your imagination

  2. Further to this (2021, in the wake of another school shooting perpetrated by a teenage man)

    None of this is to say that the US doesn’t need better healthcare and support for mental ill-health (it absolutely does), but you cannot look only at ‘mental health problems’ and ignore the fact that the US is a late-stage capitalist country, a white supremacist country, and an extraordinarily misogynistic one (partly as a result of the previous issue).

    All of those combined with a militarised police force that invests huge amounts of money in media narratives that create fear among the general public [follow @EqualityAlec, Alec Karakatsanis if you do not yet] = young men, especially young white men, who are extremely angry and turn to violence as a perceived way out or means to accomplish something.

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