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One Step Away Featured Article: “It’s the Guns, Not Mental Health”

This editorial on guns and mental health ran in RHD’s One Step Away, Philadelphia’s street newspaper produced and distributed by people experiencing homelessness.

It’s the guns.guns and mental health

We’ve all struggled with the national conversation in the wake of the horror of the Newtown, Conn., shooting. The tragedy is unspeakable, there is no reaction that seems appropriate, wailing calls for “somebody” to do “something” feel like cover for “everybody” to do “nothing,” we’re just wandering around in an angry, confused, frustrated fog. The only thing we know for sure is that we’re all shedding tears for children we’d never met, and hugging our own kids a little tighter today.

In the midst of all this, we wonder why. We try to find a reason and cast about for a cause. That’s natural. And part of the dialogue has become the need to look more closely at mental illness. OK. But, no.

It’s the guns.

It’s been hard to find people making the pro-gun argument lately. But they’re out there; most of them are the people trying to change the argument to make it about mental illness. This is a personal issue for us at One Step Away because mental illness, and the stigma that exists around it, is so prevalent among people experiencing homelessness. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 25 percent of the homeless population suffers from some form of severe mental illness (compared to 6 percent of all Americans). Mental illness is the third-largest cause of homelessness.

This issue is real, and it is serious. Amateur diagnoses, wild speculation and fantastic misinformation is not helpful.

FACT: Being mentally ill, even severely mentally ill, does not predispose you to violence.

The vast majority of people who are violent do not suffer from mental illness, according to the American Psychiatric Association, and according to the APA Council on Law and Psychiatry, “The vast majority of people with mental illness in the community are not violent.” Substance abuse, socioeconomic status, age, gender and history of violence are far greater risk factors for violent behavior. In fact, people with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence – they experience violent victimization at four times the rate of the general population.

A University of Chicago study on violence and mental disorder found that if we eliminated major mental disorders, just snapped our fingers and made it disappear, violence in the community would be reduced by only 4.3 percent.

“There really is no clear association between Asperger’s and violent behavior,” according to psychologist Elizabeth Laugeson. Psychologist Eric Butter of Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, said that aggressive behavior such as pushing, shoving, or shouting occurs with higher frequency among people with autism, but added: “We are not talking about the kind of planned and intentional type of violence we have seen at Newtown.”

FACT: Just as many rampage killers exhibit no signs of mental illness as those that do.

The New York Times examined 100 shooting rampages and found that about half of the killers showed signs of serious mental health problems – which means that half did not. Mother Jones recently did an exhaustive report finding 38 of 61 mass killers “showed signs of mental health problems” – which means that 23 people who were perfectly sane went out and committed mass murder.

Our unofficial study of mass killings found this statistic: You know how many of those rampages involved guns?
All of them.

Half the crimes involved mental illness. A full 100 percent of the crimes involved guns. Where should we be focusing? Hint: It’s not mental illness. It’s the guns.

A Harvard study’s inescapable conclusion: Whether across countries or states, more video games, or a greater incidence of mental illness, do not equal more homicides. More guns equal more homicides. Period.

FACT: For all the chatter about mental health, those services are being cut all the time.

One Step Away is published each month by Resources for Human Development, a national human services nonprofit that, coincidentally, provides services in Connecticut (although not near Sandy Hook). Programs there, as in most states across the country, are fighting through severe budget cuts that result in fewer services, longer waiting lists and the ability to help fewer people. In the last three years, funding for mental health services has been cut by $4.3 billion. Providers have closed facilities and laid off staff; eight states have closed their psychiatric hospitals.

Are we talking about a stimulus program of $4.3 billion in spending to restore those cuts? Are we talking about government expansion to do more (presumably mandatory) testing, and the resulting government program that would by definition mandate treatment – especially medication? After the health care debate that careened into the Supreme Court, we cannot imagine this nation is prepared to submit to mandatory psychological testing and treatment by the government. If we’re talking about restoring the massive budget cuts of the last few years, awesome. If we’re just talking about mental health to change the subject, that’s not helpful.

People with mental illness, including those experiencing homelessness, need less stigma, not more. Encouraging society to be fearful of them does more harm than good; it works to prevent people from getting the help they need. People experiencing mental illness need recovery and understanding. Fear is not part of the equation.

One Step Away’s editorial board is comprised largely of people currently or formerly homeless. They drive this conversation. They live, or have lived, on the meanest and most dangerous streets in this city. When they spoke of their fears, they didn’t talk about mental illness.

It’s the guns.

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