Two days after gunmen killed more than 30 people in Dayton, Ohio and El Paso, Tex., Julie Learson rallied with 250 Connecticut residents on the steps of the state Capitol. But unlike the scores of adults and children who held signs demanding legislative action to stop mass shootings, Learson clutched a piece of cardboard that read, “White supremacy and toxic masculinity are terrorist ideologies, not mental illnesses.”
“I think they’re conflating two issues that need to be kept separate,” Learson said, referring to some lawmakers’ reflexive pointing to mental illness as the cause of gun violence following a mass shooting. “If you say, ‘Oh, it’s mental illness,’ you’re absolving yourself of responsibility of preventing or solving the crisis.”
Kathy Flaherty, executive director of the Connecticut Legal Rights Project, Inc., expressed similar frustration.
“Racism isn’t a mental illness. White supremacy isn’t a mental illness,” said Flaherty. “Locking up people in psychiatric hospitals is not going to make gun violence go away. It’s going to cause a lot more trauma for people.”
“Racism isn’t a mental illness. White supremacy isn’t a mental illness. Locking up people in psychiatric hospitals is not going to make gun violence go away.”
Executive Director, Connecticut Legal Rights Project, Inc.
Flaherty is referring to President Trump’s suggestions to build more psychiatric hospitals and create registries of people with mental illnesses in the wake of the Dayton and El Paso shootings. In the three weeks since the massacres, Trump has flip-flopped on whether he supports expanding background checks and enacting a federal version of red flag laws, but he has remained consistent in his assertion that, “Mental illness and hatred pull the trigger, not the gun.”
Trying to make these policies a reality could imperil existing congressional efforts to pass comprehensive gun reform, lawmakers believe.
“If the president and the White House are talking about reinstutionalizing the mentally ill, well, that’s a nonstarter, and that would probably be the quickest way to shut down these negotiations,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, who has been lobbying the White House to support on a bill that would universalize background checks before people can purchase guns. “We’re not going to even begin a conversation about the rebuilding of mental institutions in this country.”
Murphy has become a congressional leader on gun reform in the seven years since the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, where a gunman killed 20 first graders in Newtown. After a mass shooting in Orlando, Florida in 2016, he led a 14-hour filibuster demanding his colleagues hold votes on measures that would have tightened access to firearms.
The Trump administration’s proposals to stop the carnage, which also include studying links between violent behavior and mental illness, have alarmed mental health advocates inside and outside of Connecticut.
“It’s really offensive. It scapegoats and victimizes people who are already victims,” said David Stowe, vice chair of the Newtown Action Alliance.
“The president talks so recklessly and irresponsibly about people with mental illness,” Murphy said. “He constantly conflates people who are mentally ill with people who are violent, when in fact the opposite is true.”
“If the president and the White House are talking about reinstutionalizing the mentally ill, well, that’s a nonstarter, and that would probably be the quickest way to shut down these negotiations.”
Sen. Chris Murphy
A recent paper by the National Council for Behavioral Health notes that it’s a common misconception that all those who commit mass shootings are mentally ill. In reality, around one in four perpetrators were suffering from such an illness at some point in their lives, but it’s not clear those afflictions affected their decision to carry out the carnage.
“The major characteristics of men involved in this, is that they are isolated, they are resentful, they feel like an injustice has been done to them or groups they identified with,” said Dr. Joseph Parks, the council’s medical director, during a recent interview. “Anger and hate are not mental illnesses per se, they’re social problems.”
Even if the U.S. eliminated the increased risk of violence related to major depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, the paper notes, 96% of violence would still occur, since it is caused by other factors.
In other words, creating a registry of people who have a mental illness — which would be a long list, considering that 1 in 5 adults experience such an ailment in a given year — will yield many “false positives,” in Parks’ words, since the vast majority do not carry out acts of violence.
In fact, noted Sheila Amdur, the former president of NAMI Connecticut who now works as a program consultant, people with mental illness are much more likely to be victims, not perpetrators, of mass violence.
“It’s totally a deflection to say these [mass shooters] are people with mental health needs,” said Amdur.
Learson agrees, and said scapegoating people with mental illness makes it difficult for them to seek help. The shooters, she added, were competent enough to carry out each massacre, “and we have the lax laws that made it easy for them to do it.”
Focusing on diagnosed mental illnesses overlooks people who are suffering from acute psychological distress and it is those people who are more likely to commit violence, said Mark Barden, managing director of Sandy Hook Promise, whose 7-year-old son Daniel was killed during the Newtown shooting in 2012. Barden’s organization teaches people to identify warning signs in others, like poor anger management or impulse control, and refer them to programs that can teach healthy coping strategies.
“Those are all opportunities for those around those individuals to know those signs, to recognize those behaviors, and then connect them to some sort of services or intervention,” Barden said. “We feel that training, awareness and education is critical to preventing so many tragedies.”
There is a discussion to be had about mental health within the context of gun violence, Flaherty said. “We’re just having the wrong conversation.”
The discussion Flaherty is referring to is the link between guns and suicide. Between Jan. 1, 2017 and June 30, 2019, there were 1,037 suicides in Connecticut, according to data provided by the Department of Public Health. Firearms accounted for 27% of those deaths; men were 11 times more likely than women to use a gun to commit suicide.
“If I had access to a gun, I would probably not be alive,” said Flaherty, who herself was civilly committed to a Massachusetts hospital for two months in 1990. “Whenever mental health enters the discussion, we are not having the conversation we need to have, which is to address suicide.”
“There are some politicians that will want you to go down the rabbit hole with them so they don’t really have to talk about the gun issue. You’re not fooling anybody that’s aware. Once you’re woke, you’re woke.”
Mother of Aurora, Colo. shooting victim
Connecticut has laws on the books that limit access to guns by people experiencing a mental health crisis. One is a red flag law that allows the courts to take firearms away from someone deemed a threat to themselves and others. Another prohibits people who have voluntarily committed themselves to a mental hospital from owning a firearm for six months. Flaherty said there is due process for people who lose their guns because of the red flag law, and that the law has led to reductions in the number of suicides in Connecticut, an assertion backed up by research.
“What the president is generally calling for… is to stigmatize and label people with mental health conditions for being responsible for mass shootings when that isn’t the case,” Flaherty said.
There’s another link between mental health needs and gun violence, though it doesn’t have to do with the mental state of the person who pulled the trigger: its about the mental health of survivors and family members who lost loved ones to senseless violence.
“Gun violence has ripple effects that go well beyond the original incident,” Stowe said.
Sandy Phillips and her husband have traveled to the sites of 14 mass shootings across the U.S. after their daughter was killed seven years ago in a massacre at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo. They speak to people who have just experienced an unspeakable tragedy, their lives irrevocably changed. Those individuals often receive grief counseling, Phillips said, but usually aren’t taught ways to manage the future anxiety and post-traumatic stress that follow such shootings.
“Trauma therapy really is the key,” said Phillips.
New survivors of gun violence don’t tell Phillips right after a shooting they want to see mental health registries created or people with mental illness to be locked up in asylums. Instead, she said, “They’re really concerned about their own mental health and their own physical health when this happens to them.”
Phillips said those who have lost loved ones to gun violence have become desensitized to the rote ways many lawmakers respond to the tragedies. Discussions about people with mental illness are distractions to the real issue, she said — access to firearms.
“There are some politicians that will want you to go down the rabbit hole with them so they don’t really have to talk about the gun issue,” she said. “You’re not fooling anybody that’s aware. Once you’re woke, you’re woke.”