America's "Mental Illness" Problem

As mental health awareness month kicks off, I’d like to spread some of that awareness towards mental illness and gun violence. Specifically, how little society understands any of it.

Only when there is a mass shooting, do people bring up gun violence. And only when there is gun violence, do people bring up mental health issues and the need for solutions. What’s the problem? The majority of gun violence has nothing to do with mass shootings or the mentally ill. They are both red herrings for the real problem: normal human behavior is sometimes impulsive and violent.


Mass shootings account for less than 1% of deaths and injuries each year due to gun violence. Only 3-5% of gun violence is attributed to people with serious mental illness. Only 1% of that is violence towards strangers. When the data is combed over, another detail emerges. It is usually people with both a serious mental illness and a substance abuse problem who commit this small percentage of crimes. If mental illness was completely removed from the equation, 90-97% of gun violence would go on, as it does, unbothered.


Mentally ill people are no more likely to cause gun violence than the rest of the population. In fact, they are more often victims of violence because they are less capable of defending themselves and reporting the incident. Sure, there are small groups of disturbed people who are more likely to commit violence, like someone with a serious mental illness who is experiencing delusions, is socially marginalized, has a substance abuse problem, and a history of violent acts. But how many people actually fit that description?


If any gun violence statistics can be linked to mental illness, it is that 65% of gun deaths are caused by suicide. It is more complicated than that, however, because not all suicidal behavior is caused by mental illness. Often, it is a person experiencing an episode of poor mental health because they cannot find a solution to the overwhelming problems in their life. Financial crisis, coming out as LGBTQ in a hostile environment, being ashamed of a mistake that hurt someone… this isn’t mental illness. It is normal human behavior under intense pressure.


If anything, these facts do not tell us that America has a “mental illness problem” – it tells us we have a mental healthcare crisis.


The mental illness umbrella is huge. There is depression, anxiety, bipolar depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, phobias, borderline personality disorder, eating disorders, schizophrenia, and a host of others, plus they often team up in different combinations on people who are predisposed to one or the other. Very few of us are violent. Since most people have experienced a depressive episode or a panic attack in their life, they think they know something about the intricate, diverse, myriad of us. It usually vacillates between “shake it off” and “lock them up.”


But the truth is gun violence is most often caused in the heat of the moment, by an emotionally charged person, who had quick and easy access to a firearm. The statistics will point toward the male gender, socioeconomic hardship, alcohol and drug abuse, a history of childhood abuse, a criminal record, domestic abuse, and the number of firearms owned per capita in the area. Those statistics have a higher correlation to gun violence than mental illness does.


However, the issue doesn’t seem to be mental illness. The issue is that typical people are capable of violence when they are overwhelmed with emotion and stress. That violence becomes easier to carry out when there is a weapon at hand. If people refuse to mitigate the social issues causing this stress, we need to mitigate the weapons. If people refuse to mitigate the weapons, we must address our social problems.


Don’t blame “mental illness” and walk away, so you can all pretend normal people don’t do that kind of thing. The overwhelming majority of gun violence is caused by normal people under extraordinary stress who have access to guns. Spread the awareness.