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. I intend to challenge those perceptions with what is real and accurate.
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.
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.
We know that mental illnesses are real, treatable, and manageable conditions caused by genetic, biological, or environmental factors, or some combination of all three. We just read last month of the groundbreaking study by NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) that shows “people who had schizophrenia were more likely to have a certain type of a gene that promotes neural ‘pruning.’ We don’t use the term ‘chemical imbalance’ anymore to explain how schizophrenia develops. We need to understand neural networks-how neurons relate and communicate.” This IS brain science. Larson and Bergin wrote, though while “the disease model has significantly reduced the stigma associated with mental illness and has enabled many to have an enhanced recovery, the focus on medical treatment has placed mental illness beyond the direct attention of faith communities. This is unfortunate because research has shown that a spiritual support system is critical to the recovery of many people who have a mental illness.”
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 the wonderful multi-faith resource, developed by 32 national religious organizations, “Grounded in Faith: Resources on Mental Health and Gun Violence,” we read, “We are to treat people with dignity and respect, especially people on the margins of society.”
I am defensive because I am the father of a son who has lived with mental illness/brain disease/psychiatric disorder for 27 years of his 45 years. Having been in hospital locked rooms for up to 20 times over those years, many times he was taken to the hospital (rather than to jail) by the police. I have come to appreciate the Crisis Intervention Training given to police officers. CIT trained police are alert to the signs of mental health challenges which could deflate the tension in some situations. This is a resource offered police across the country. The decision to take the person to the hospital rather than to jail can be critical to a person’s recovery.
Stigma is the word which is used to describe the wall which is built between people, between those who categorize others as “other” people because of their differences in appearance, ability, culture or any other characterization. In the MHFA (Mental Health First Aid) program, we read, “Stigma is a cluster of negative attitudes and beliefs that motivate the public to fear, reject, avoid, and discriminate against people with mental illnesses.” It goes on, “stigma is not only a barrier to recovery; it is the single biggest barrier to recovery. Fighting the stigma and shame associated with mental illness is often more difficult than battling the illness itself.”
I hope that some of what I have just shared can dispel some misunderstandings you might have. While I could continue with more facts and figures, I am always concerned about what actually can shape a person’s actions. I want to give some suggestions as to how to engage this topic in a supportive and positive way. Part 2 of this blog will discuss how faith communities can be a resource in a variety of ways to address these topics about which we have been talking.
About Rev. Alan Johnson:
Rev. Alan Johnson is a United Church of Christ clergy who retired as chaplain at the Children’s Hospital, Denver. Prior to that he was pastor in congregations in Connecticut and New York City. He also served on the national staff of the UCC for 16 years. Presently he serves as the chair of the United Church of Christ Mental Health Network.