Fact Check: Gun Violence and Mental Health

“Mental illness and hatred pull the trigger,” Trump said, following two mass shootings in 13 hours. “Not the gun.”

He then went on to suggest “involuntary confinement” for the mentally ill when “necessary.”

As Buzzfeed’s headline declared, Trump blamed the shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio (three hours away from my apartment on the West Side of Cleveland) on everything except guns. But perhaps most problematic was his determination to scapegoat the mentally ill for the epidemic of gun violence in our country.

I’m a chronic illness and mental health blogger, but I’m also an activist. And I’m also mentally ill.

I’m fortunate enough to have depression, anxiety and a history of eating disorders, conditions that — while distressing and, occasionally, debilitating — allow me to masquerade as well 90% of the time. But some mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, are more visible than mine, meaning there’s a proportion of the mentally ill population who won’t be able to escape scrutiny following a mass shooting.

Supporters of the Second Amendment said it after Sandy Hook. They said it after Las Vegas. They said it after every mass shooting in the past decade, and they’ll likely continue to say it, as long as gun lobbies like the NRA continue to exist.

Conservatives claim gun violence is a mental health problem, rather than a gun control problem. So, let’s fact check, shall we? Let’s examine the claims made about gun violence and mental health to find the truth of it all, wherever it may lie.

By now, I think we all have an idea where this is headed….

Fact: The mentally ill are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators.

Public opinion reveals our bias toward the mentally ill, particularly toward those with psychotic disorders: in 2006, 60% of Americans reported suspecting that a person with schizophrenia would act violently toward others. But stigma, while felt more acutely by patients with psychotic disorders, is not confined to them. In fact, nearly a third of the respondents reported that they believed someone with major depression would act violently toward others.

After controlling for the effects of substance abuse, however, later studies found that mentally ill patients — even those with schizophrenia — were no more likely to commit acts of violence than others. And while 48% of American adults blame the mental health system “a great deal” for problems with gun violence, 95 to 97% of gun violence is not caused by mental illness.

In reality, the mentally ill are at higher risk of experiencing violence than the general population. A 2018 study conducted in Denmark found that the mentally ill are 2.5 times more likely to become victims of violent crime. And in the United States, we’re a startling 12 times more likely to fall victim to violent crime — especially when mental illness is combined with the vulnerable circumstances involved in poverty.

Fact: The mentally ill are more likely to harm themselves with guns than to commit mass shootings.

In 2019 alone, there have been 255 mass shootings, killing nearly 9,000 Americans and injuring close to 18,000. But while mass shootings are undeniably a grave problem, the number of deaths does not even come close to the number of suicides in the United States each year.

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. In 2017 alone, nearly 48,000 Americans died by suicide — and there were as many as 1.4 million attempts of suicide. In other words, 14 out of every 100,000 individuals will die by suicide, with an average of 129 suicides occurring daily.

As Former Congressperson and gun violence survivor Gabrielle Giffords states on her website, “The majority of gun deaths are self-inflicted. The easy availability of firearms to those in distress makes suicide attempts far more likely to result in death.”

While guns are used in only 5% of suicide attempts, they are responsible for over 50% of suicide deaths. Suicidal people can easily access lethal firearms, making gun access an important predictor of suicide risk. (Those of us who have ever expressed suicidal ideation in therapy have likely been asked: “Do you have access to firearms at home?”) Thus, a lack of gun control is largely to blame for both mass shootings and suicides.

Fact: The Affordable Care Act protects Americans with mental illness.

Trump claims that addressing the (admittedly very real) mental health crisis in the United States will address gun violence — when his party has launched an attack on one of the most important pieces of legislation ever passed for those of us with mental illness.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA), affectionately known as “Obamacare,” provided “one of the largest expansions of mental health and substance use disorder coverage in a generation.” Under the ACA, mental health and substance use treatment coverage became mandatory as part of Essential Health Benefits every insurance company must provide.

The ACA also made more Americans eligible for health insurance, meaning more patients could receive access to the mental healthcare they needed. Most importantly, however, the ACA codified equality for patients with mental health conditions into law. Insurance companies could no longer deny coverage to those with “preexisting conditions,” such as a mental illness or substance use disorder.

Trump’s opposition to the ACA directly contradicts his so-called “call-to-action” for better mental healthcare. For example, Trump approved of a requirement that Medicaid recipients must work to receive benefits — excluding those who cannot work due to a disabling mental illness or substance use condition from receiving the same insurance benefits.

Fact: Mentally ill patients can be “involuntarily confined” if they exhibit signs of violence.

Trump called for “involuntary confinement” (note: CONFINEMENT, not commitment — which seems to be calling for jail cells rather than inpatient beds) of the mentally ill when they exhibit signs of violence. Yet this isn’t anything new — we already have provisions for involuntary commitment under United States law.

There are two ways for a patient to be “involuntarily confined” for mental health treatment. Firstly, a patient can be involuntarily admitted to a hospital or treatment facility in an immediate crisis — for example, when they exhibit suicidal ideation, with a definitive plan to carry out those acts, or when they threaten immediate danger or harm to others. Secondly, a patient can be committed for inpatient or outpatient treatment by a court after a lengthy process that requires the patient present a danger to themself or others, or be unable to meet their basic needs.

The problem with suggesting involuntary commitment as a solution for preventing mass shootings is that, as we’ve already proven, the mentally ill rarely perpetrate these acts of violence. More likely, the mentally ill may suffer from traumatic, violent acts that lead them into crisis — and thereby involuntary commitment.

Fact: More guns, with more rounds, result in more deaths.

As John Oliver mentioned in an episode of Last Week Tonight, Australia experienced one mass shooting — then promptly banned assault weapons. And you know how many mass shootings they have experienced since? Zero. Zilch. None. That’s in comparison to the 60% chance that a mass shooting will occur in the United States on any given day — and the 17% chance that the number rises to two mass shootings.

Unfortunately, gun control has become a polarized issue, dividing the political parties to the point where they can no longer achieve their basic responsibility of protecting American citizens from violence. However, polls show most Americans agree on common-sense gun reform laws, such as banning assault weapons (which allow for enormous massacres to occur in a matter of minutes) and implementing basic background checks.

At the end of the day, it’s not mental illness that’s leading to mass shootings. It’s guns.

It’s the fact that a former felon-turned-mass shooter in West Virginia — who was banned from legally purchasing a gun — could buy a gun off another citizen on Facebook and kill four people, before shooting and killing himself. It’s the fact that shooters have access to military-grade weapons that can be used to kill nine people in under one minute.

Nearly 70% of all voters support an assault weapons ban, yet our president claims there is “no political appetite” for gun control reform. And more than 91% of all voters support stricter background checks for gun purchases.

Let’s stop blaming mental illness, and start placing the blame where it lies: America can come together over gun control. So, why can’t our politicians?

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