“Do not fear; for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine,” Isa. 43:1
When I hear or read about mental health and gun violence, I can become defensive. And here is why. We know that in a survey, 60% of Americans thought that people with schizophrenia were likely to act violently toward someone else, while 32% thought that people with major depression were likely to do so. That perception is totally wrong, inaccurate and does not reflect reality. We need to debunk that myth.
In a 2014 survey of 10,000 individuals (both those who live with mental illness and those who do not), taking all of the incidents of violence reported among the people in the survey, mental illness alone could explain only 4% of the incidents. Then breaking that down, if a person did not fit in any of the following categories, male, poor- living in a disadvantaged community, and are abusing alcohol or illegal drugs, then mental illness was highly unlikely to be predictive of violence, and the percentage could go down to 2%. So when anyone says people with mental illness are all dangerous, the truth is the vast majority are not. So making persons who have a mental illness scapegoats for gun violence may be convenient, but it’s flat-out wrong and won’t make anyone safer. There are other ways to offer and even prevent the small number of violent actions from people who are living with an untreated mental illness.
In Sue Klebold’s book (A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy) we read, “There is, in particular, an overlap between brain health issues and mass shootings.” (An examination of 37 school attacks hopes of preventing others in the future.) The researchers found that “most attackers showed some history of suicidal attempts or thoughts, or a history of feeling extreme depression or desperation.” Access to brain health screening and treatment, then, is critical in preventing violence as well as suicide, eating disorders, drug and alcohol abuse and a host of other dangers threatening teens. Better access to these resources may not be “the “answer, but it is pretty close to one. Acknowledging mental health conditions and offering treatments are necessary. That means reducing the stigma and increase the funding for mental health services.
We know that people with severe mental illness are 2 ½ times more likely to be attacked, raped, or mugged than the general population. Individuals with schizophrenia, for example, are at least 14 times more likely to be victims of a violent crime than to be arrested for one. If we are going to live for the common good, we will act to protect those who are so stigmatized by the media and vilified by the public.
We know that 87-90% persons who end their life have a mental illness diagnosis. And of all suicides, 61% involve the use of guns. So when we hear of the connection of mental illness and violence, we need to know that the largest numbers of incidents of persons who have a mental illness who are involved in gun violence are self-inflicted, not in mass shootings where the publicity inflates the fears.
I am a person of faith-in the context of progressive Christianity- and there is minimal attention in faith traditions or in faith communities to address mental illness, and to act to be inclusive and welcoming of everyone. There are too many faith communities which have put up barriers to those who are living with a mental health condition creating even more isolation and alienation, and they often also turn aside from the loved ones of those who live with mental illness. I am defensive because I believe my faith tradition, based in compassionate care, justice, and inclusivity, ought to be in the vanguard of actions to overcome fear and offer hospitality. In light of even recent violence and tragedies, we can turn to the One who does offer an embracing comfort; the power greater than ourselves whose compassion is deeper than any suffering. The God I have come to know in Jesus says of each of us, “you are mine,” you are enough.
Rev. Alan Johnson
Alan Johnson is a mental health advocate who served on the national United Church Board of Homeland Ministries, 1979-1995, retired as chaplain at The Children’s Hospital, Denver, and is a past chair of the UCC Mental Health Network board of directors.