Even as he called for unity during his address to the nation in the wake of the weekend’s mass shootings in Dayton and El Paso, President Trump couldn’t help but throw out some red meat to his base.
“Mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger, not the gun,” Trump said in a speech that was widely condemned as robotic and inadequate.
Plenty of others on the right, from politicians to pundits and even respected news outlets, poured stigma on mental illness as the nation reeled from two more massacres. The response from mental health experts and disability advocates was unequivocal: Research shows no statistical link between mental illness and mass shootings and violence in general, and it’s dangerous when powerful people say otherwise.
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Indeed, people diagnosed with serious mental illness commit only about 3 percent of violent crimes, but they are 10 times more likely to be victims of violence. Mental illness has long been surrounded by stigma based in unscientific myths. Furthering this stigma around mental health issues only increases the likelihood that people diagnosed with mental illness, as well as people with cognitive and intellectual disabilities, will face violence and discrimination at work, school and even in health care settings.
In the face of Trump’s statements, disability rights organizations are speaking out.
“ADAPT strongly denounces this response and calls on President Trump and others to stop this deplorable practice immediately,” said the Intersectional Justice Committee at ADAPT, a disability rights group known for its direct actions. “Blaming mass shootings on mental health issues puts those living with mental health conditions at risk of harm and in danger of discrimination.”
Violent Racism Is the Real Public Health Crisis
Blaming mass shootings on mental health issues also obscures the real causes of violence, including racism.
“Psychological science has demonstrated the damage that racism can inflict on its targets,” said Rosie Phillips Davis, president of the American Psychological Association, in a statement after the shootings. “Racism has been shown to have negative cognitive and behavioral effects on both children and adults and to increase anxiety, depression, self-defeating thoughts and avoidance behaviors.”
Davis said the nation is facing a “public health crisis of gun violence fueled by racism, bigotry and hatred.”
“Psychological science has demonstrated that social contagion — the spread of thoughts, emotions and behaviors from person to person and among larger groups — is real, and may well be a factor, at least in the El Paso shooting,” Davis said.
It’s not hard to imagine who might be implicated in such a “social contagion.” The manifesto believed to be written by the El Paso shooter is a racist screed warning of an “invasion” of immigrants at the southern border. Trump has called the influx of refugees and asylum seekers there an “invasion” over and over and over again, and as The New York Times has reported, his campaign has scrawled the word across social media thousands of times over.
This is incredibly inconvenient for Trump, who appears to be centering his reelection bid on his brutal immigration crackdown. So, he and his supporters are looking for scapegoats.
As Trump and others blame “mental illness,” people diagnosed with mental illness and their allies are fighting back, because being scapegoated for mass killings is not just grossly unfair: It is dangerous and can lead to harmful and discriminatory public policies.
“Blaming gun violence and mass shootings on mental health only serves to scapegoat those living with mental health conditions and disabilities,” the ADAPT committee said. “It has led to laws, policies and practices that discriminate against and institutionalize us, especially within prisons, and serves only to expand the ableist violence so many in our community already face.”
In his speech on Monday, Trump called for “involuntary confinement” of people with mental illnesses when necessary, a dangerous and, for some, an emotionally triggering statement. Involuntary confinement, also known as involuntary commitment, involves confining a person experiencing a psychiatric crisis to a psychiatric facility against their will, often for a brief period of time. Involuntary commitment can be a source of trauma for those confined and often presents an extremely difficult and painful choice for the families of those experiencing a psychiatric crisis.
Despite the lack of a statistical link between psychiatric crises and mass shootings, Trump spoke of “reforming health care laws” to better identify “mentally disturbed people” in need of treatment. However, the Trump administration has attempted to slash access to health care across the board.
“In the U.S., it is easier to get a gun than it is to get mental health care,” states Angela Kimball, acting CEO of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). “We need to flip the script. It should be easy — not hard — for people to get the mental health care they need.”
Creating policy around a false connection between mental health and mass violence could be politically unpopular, particularly among younger people. Millennials are more likely to report experiencing mental health issues and illnesses than older generations, probably because we are more likely to talk about our mental health openly with others. Doing so has helped to begin destigmatizing mental illness and disabilities, as well as drug use and addiction, making it easier for young people to share experiences, support one another and seek care.
Stigmatizing mental health may temporarily divert attention from the right-wing’s culpability when it comes to mass killings, but in the long run, it’s likely to alienate younger voters. (Of course, Trump’s racism has done that already.)
ADAPT’s Intersectional Justice Committee is demanding that Trump address the “real issue” about mass shootings: The overwhelming majority of killers are “white men who have clearly expressed hatred of religions, races, immigrant status, and other social identities different than their own.”
It’s crucial to name that mass shooters are participants in larger structures of oppression, the group said.
“Racism, hatred and bigotry are wrong, but they are not mental health disabilities. They are not disabilities at all,” the group said in its collective statement. “Furthermore, calling them by these terms hides the true evils of systemic and structural racism.”
Trump denounced racism in his speech, but his words rang hollow to many. After all, his administration is literally working to uphold systemic and structural racism, both with policy and with rhetoric.
Problems With “Red Flag” Laws
In line with his rhetoric around mental illness, Trump is now calling for so-called “red flag” laws that would allow police to temporarily confiscate firearms from people deemed a potential risk to themselves or others after receiving permission from a court. In the 17 states that have some version of “red flag” laws, such “extreme risk protection orders” sometimes result from reports filed with police by friends and family members.
Any gun control legislation offered by Democrats is a non-starter with the vast majority of Republicans in Congress and state legislatures, so “red flag” laws — which target individuals instead of the firearms industry and gun owners in general — are seen by some as the most expedient political compromise for addressing mass shootings. However, they also reflect the notion promoted by Trump and other conservatives that mass shootings can somehow be prevented if people supposed to be “unstable” (often, people diagnosed with mental illness) are kept away from guns.
In a statement, NAMI said it would support “red flag” laws — but only if they include specific protections for people with mental illness.
Given the ongoing stigma around mental health issues, it’s conceivable that people may call the police and seek “extreme risk protection orders” against people diagnosed with mental illnesses or disabilities even if they don’t pose a threat to themselves and others — and potentially even if they don’t actually own guns, but are simply perceived to own them.
This could result in unnecessary contact with police and the criminal legal system. Police in particular have a deadly track record when it comes to mental health issues: People diagnosed with mental illness are a whopping 16 times more likely to be killed by police than others, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center. Many of these deaths occur during arrests and encounters in public, but what happens when cops show up at the door demanding to confiscate a gun?
At this point, data on states with “red flag” programs are inconclusive about whether the laws result in false reports or serious reductions in violent crime. Most states don’t track false reports, but judges in Connecticut and Maryland have dismissed requests for “extreme risk protection orders” at rates of about 30 and 50 percent, respectively, according to analysis by The Denver Post.
What we do know is that the vast majority of requests for protection orders — 92 percent — are filed against men, and the number one reason is risk of suicide, not violence against others or society, according to the Post’s analysis. It remains unclear whether “red flag” laws can put a meaningful dent in rates of homicides and firearm violence.
“Sensible, effective gun control laws that do not discriminate against or scapegoat those of us in the mental health, disability, or other communities is what is needed to address gun violence and prevent mass shootings,” the ADAPT committee said.