Guns and mental illness: it’s a topic that frequently surfaces, in the wake of each mass shooting in the U.S. The problem, say some politicians, pundits, and other leaders, is one of mental health. After all, surely only a very ill person would seek to cause the sort of widespread violence that characterizes a shooting spree. If we could only increase scrutiny of these sick individuals, goes the argument, we could stop the problem at the roots.
However, what do mental health experts think about this?
In a recent piece for The Conversation, Arash Javanbakt, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Wayne State University, outlined the issues with targeting the mentally ill as a group when trying to prevent gun violence.
For one thing, explains Javanbakt, any measure aimed at the mentally ill would need to define what exactly mental illness is. This is complicated by the fact that conditions like depression are shockingly common, experienced by almost 1 in 5 people at some point during their lives. Nearly 8% of the population has some form of PTSD, but this rises dramatically among some groups; for example, up to 30% of war veterans. Without thinking about it too hard, you probably know at least one person with depression, an anxiety disorder, or PTSD.
“Now, when one suggests that gun access should be restricted for people with mental illness,” Javanbakt writes, “do they mean all of these conditions? Or just some, or some in defined circumstances? For example, should we remove guns from all veterans with PTSD, or all people with social anxiety, or those who habitually pick their skin?” It is very difficult to draw a line around the mentally ill as a population, and it can also be difficult to determine which people in that group are capable of unlawful violence.
In fact, Javanbakt cites a statistic that, despite the prevalence of mental illness, only 3 to 4% of violent crimes are committed by people with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or depression. Given the large percentage of the population with a mental illness, in the few cases where a mentally ill person does commit a violence crime, says Javanbakt, there isn’t enough information to prove causation. Besides, statistically, these individuals are far, far more likely to harm themselves than they are to put someone else in the crosshairs.
Rosie Phillips Davis, Ph.D, is the president of the American Psychological Association. Following the mass shootings at Dayton and El Paso, she put out a statement expressing sorrow at the violence and urging caution when it comes to blaming such actions on the mentally ill as a group. Like Javanbakt, she points out that mental illness is as common around the world as it is in the U.S., and yet the U.S. continually suffers disproportionate rates of mass shootings—ruling out mental illness as the sole cause. She also argues that stigmatizing mental illness could discourage people with psychological disorders from seeking treatment.
“If we want to address the gun violence that is tearing our country apart,” she says, “we must keep our focus on finding evidence-based solutions.”