Dr. Forman: Unfortunately, your new book Gun Violence and Mental Illness could not be timelier. Is there one thing that you see the media or politicians consistently getting wrong with respect to mental illness and mass shootings?
Dr. Gold: Well, there are multiple things they get wrong—but my area of expertise is mental health, and from a mental health perspective, they could not be more wrong when they continue to repeat that the problem with gun violence in this country is due to failure to adequately address mental illness. It is true that the mental health system is underfunded and fragmented—especially for people with acute serious mental illness. However, most serious mental illness is only weakly associated with violence of any kind—and with gun violence in particular. Most people with serious mental illness are not violent; most people who are violent do not have serious mental illness. Individuals with mental illness are responsible for about 3% to 5% of all types of violence in the US—when they do become violent, they are most likely to assault family members or commit suicide.
Firearm violence committed by individuals with serious mental illness against strangers is one of the rarest forms of gun violence in the US. Of the approximately 33,000 firearm deaths each year, two-thirds are suicides. Less than 1% of all firearm deaths in the US occur in the context of mass shootings by individuals, with or without mental illness. So unless the media and politicians are talking about suicide deaths by firearms—which they never are—they are simply perpetuating negative stereotypes and stigma associated with mental illness.
The thinking goes like this: only someone who is crazy would commit such a horrible act and kill innocent people. We all know that crazy people are dangerous and violent; therefore, it must be people with mental illness who are behind these horrible acts. However, mass shootings are not invariably associated with people who have acute mental illness or a history of mental illness. Some do, but some don’t.
Improved funding and resources for mental health systems and treatment would of course be welcomed. However, the repeated calls to “improve the mental health system” heard after mass shootings do not result in increased spending or funding. They merely serve as a politically expedient method to avoid talking about instituting sensible firearm regulation.
Moreover, the refrain to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill does a disservice to American society:
1. It reinforces the stigma and negative stereotypes associated with mental illness, making it less likely that those who need treatment will receive treatment.
2. It does not result in improved funding of or access to mental health treatment.
3. It allows politicians and media to avoid discussing sensible gun regulations.
4. Because no effective change results, the American people have come to believe that “nothing can be done” to stop the high toll of gun violence, despite the fact that we are the only country in the world with this kind of civilian gun violence problem.