Scapegoating Mental Illness Amplifies Existing Stigma
Amidst a blur of thoughts and prayers coupled with inaction, politicians seem to have found the time to scapegoat mental illness for the anomalous gun violence dilemma in America. Meanwhile, mental illness in the US is already laden with heaps of existing stigma and bringing it up in conversations of gun violence certainly isn’t helping. In fact, it’s amplifying the stigma further. This phenomenon resurfaced following two fatal mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton. In response to the attacks, Donald Trump claimed that “mental illness... pulled the trigger,” attributing the attacks to mental health issues rather than the lack of gun regulation, neither of which he planned on addressing with concrete legislation. Accordingly, many have been quick to identify that mental illness is not to blame for gun violence in the US, but it’s also important for us to identify the detrimental effects statements like these can have on enduring mental health stigma. While some claim that these conversations divert well-deserved attention to the topic of mental health, John Dornheim of NAMI puts it best stating that while “The conversation about increased mental health care is great - the accusations are not.” This is because experts in psychology have long claimed that when the subject of mental illness is forced to shoulder the blame for senseless gun violence, the topic becomes more taboo and carries a negative stigma.
A narrative of mental illness has become embedded in conversations around gun regulation and despite expert upon expert rejecting these premises, many people still believe that mental illnesses are, at least in part, to blame. Why? Well, to answer that question we have to analyze the media we consume first. A 2016 study published in the peer-reviewed journal Health Affairs found that, in a sample of 400 stories about mental illness published in a span of 20 years, 38% linked mental illness to interpersonal violence. The study illustrates exactly how the narrative linking mental illness to violence is so voraciously inflicted upon us. Statistics like this are key to understand because according to a phenomenon psychologists refer to as the “illusory truth effect,” when we hear something so often, repetition and familiarity begin to mimic what seems like the truth to our brains. Despite the coverage the correlation receives, there is no concrete evidence to support it. In fact, less than 1% of mass shootings having been attributed to mental illness and individuals with mental illnesses are in fact up to 10 times as likely to be the victims of a violent crime. With statistics like these, it seems absurd that we still continue to have the wrong conversation about gun violence and mental health.
So, now that we have addressed one of the sources of mental health stigma, how does the taboo manifest in daily life? According to a study entitled “Public Stigma of Mental Illness in the United States,” “Perceptions of individuals with mental illness as dangerous have increased over time.” In reality, Arthur C. Evans Jr., CEO of the American Psychological Association, explains that “the overwhelming majority of people with mental illness are not violent.” These judgments manifest in numerous ways, but most of all in how society treats those with mental illnesses. A 2013 Kaiser Health poll found that 47% of Americans were uncomfortable living next to someone who was diagnosed with a mental illness and 41% felt the same way about working with someone with a mental illness. These are just a few examples of how society already tags mental health issues with negative connotations, making it that much harder for people to speak openly about their diagnoses or even seek help. With such negative and harmful characteristics already attributed to mental health issues, hearing about them in relation to mass shootings only augments the taboo.
How exactly does attributing mass shootings to “mental illness” make matters worse? One prominent effect is a rise in the lack of individuals seeking treatment out of fear of how society will view them if they do. According to the American Federation of Teachers, “stigma prevents people with mental illness from seeking and accessing appropriate care.” In addition, politicians blame mental illness without any intention to address the issues in mental health care through legislation, scapegoating the issue simply to avoid working on another. Moreover, the “blame game” only distracts, in the case of El Paso, from the inherently racist, fundamentalist, and intentional actions that some shooters have been identified as taking. Blaming mental illness for gun violence will only prevent appropriate coverage on mental health issues, stigmatize mental health issues, and keep America from solving its gun violence crisis.
The way in which our discourse on mental health latches it onto the negative connotations of gun violence will discourage more and more people from seeking treatment or speaking openly about diagnoses and will continue an unrelenting cycle of stigma. So, next time you see an article, headline, or quote blaming mental health issues for gun violence, remember that mental illness is not equated to danger and violence. And when you hear an elected representative place the blame on mental illness, check their voting record on mental health care legislation and hold them accountable to their empty promises.