To really reduce gun deaths, address mental health care

BILL KELLY | 2/15/2016, 2:53 a.m.
“Instead of arguing at the margins, politicians on both sides should be addressing the funding, access and quality of our ...
Bill Kelly Mental Health America

“Instead of arguing at the margins, politicians on both sides should be addressing the funding, access and quality of our mental health system …”

With the presidential campaigns in full swing, it is little surprise that President Barack Obama’s recent proposals on gun access have been met with political spin instead of objective analysis. Both sides are looking to make over-generalizations without looking at the practical numbers behind the real issue they should address: our mental health crisis.

Any conversation on gun violence should start with a basic set of facts in order to see the complete picture. Looking at the number of gun deaths, then moving to gun violence and mental health connections, and finally to where real bipartisan progress can be made in expanding access to mental health care can give depth to the otherwise shallow arguments made in today’s debate.

When looking at the actual occurrence of gun deaths in the United States, there is a very prominent role for those experiencing a mental illness, and it is not mass shooting settings. The point about gun access and suicide is clear in these statistics:

• More than 60 percent of people in this country who die from guns die by suicide.

• According to Harvard School of Public Health, in 2010 in the U.S., 19,392 people took their own lives with guns, compared with 11,078 who were killed by others.

• Over 90 suicides happen every hour, and 90 percent of these deaths are related to mental illness.

People are concerned that those suffering with a mental illness will gain access to a gun to kill others. In fact, they should be much more worried about this person having easy access to a gun used to take their own life.

As Matthew Miller, associate director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center at Harvard School of Public Health, put it, “If every life is important, and if you’re trying to save people from dying by gunfire, then you can’t ignore nearly two-thirds of the people who are dying.”

What about those who are suffering from a mental illness? Aren’t they “dangerous,” as the political talking heads and media consistently assert. The Hogg Foundation for Mental Health recently hosted a forum about violence prevention and mental health at the Texas Capitol in February of 2015. Some interesting stats mentioned by Dr. Joel Dvoskin from the University of Arizona included:

• People suffering from a severe and persistent mental illness are 11 to 12 times more likely to be victims of a violent crime.

• If all violence related to mental illness were to go away, the overall reduction in violent crime would be only 4 percent.

• The odds of someone with schizophrenia killing someone is approximately 1 in 140,000.

The knee-jerk reaction to closely associate gun violence with mental illness completely misses the point in the current debate over gun access. Further stigmatizing mental illness by closely associating it with gun violence is perhaps the most prominent example of mischaracterization of a public health issue in the media today.