One thing Americans can agree on within the debate about gun violence is that anybody with mental illness should steer clear of guns. However, that is not the same as saying gun violence is a mental health issue. Gun violence and mental illness are both public health issues, but they overlap very little.
According to a new study, people with mental health issues may be up to three times more likely than those without mental illness to commit a violent act against themselves or others. But that percentage is very low, stopping at 2.9%, and it is skewed by suicide stats.
The fact is, people with mental illness and access to guns are way more likely to commit suicide than anything else. Up to 44% of people who commit suicide have a mental illness history.
The study estimates that if you cut all mental health effects, the percentage of gun violence would only decrease by 4%.
Jeffrey Swanson, a professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University who specializes in gun violence and mental illness. Swanson makes sure to point out in his research and journal articles that fixing the mental health system is not a silver bullet for reducing gun violence, he said. It takes multiple approaches, many of which have nothing to do with the mentally ill:
“Mental health stakeholders are loath to have this conversation about improving mental health care in a context driven by violence prevention, because that’s not why we need mental health reform per se.”
Swanson supports background checks. But to make background checks work, the judgement should base on other indicators of risk besides mental health history, such as pending charges or convictions for violent assault, domestic violence restraining orders or multiple DUIs. He says:
“These are indicators of aggressive, impulsive or risky behavior.”
President Obama has recently issued a plan to cut gun violence, which included increasing the budget for mental health treatment and enhanced background checks. While this is a step forward in terms of prevention of gun violence, there are some concerns about the challenge of the stigma of mental illness.
“Many many people don’t understand people with mental health issues and unfortunately everybody gets grouped together,” said Angela Warren of the Mental Health Association.
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