Folmsbee: Mental illness not to blame for gun violence


Sai Folmsbee, Columnist

As mass shootings in the United States remain the uncomfortable status quo, gun control remains an unquestionably divisive topic. However, there is one thing both gun-control and gun-rights advocates appear to agree on: blaming mental illness. Both Donald Trump and Jeb Bush have argued that the fault for gun violence shouldn’t be placed on guns, but rather on mental illness. At the Democratic primary debate last week, in response to a question about gun control, Bernie Sanders called for “mental health counseling,” and Jim Webb described many who perpetrated this gun violence as “mentally incapacitated.” But mental illness shouldn’t be blamed for gun violence because it marginalizes the real struggle of those suffering from mental disorders while simultaneously obstructing real progress in improving treatment and reducing deaths.

First, mental illness isn’t one disorder, so simply attributing violence to “mental illness” is at best vague and unhelpful and at worst an insulting generalization. The vast majority of those with a mental illness isn’t violent or dangerous. In fact, those with mental illnesses are far more likely to be the victims of suicide, which in itself accounts for the vast majority of firearm deaths. Furthermore, only a miniscule 3 percent to 5 percent of crimes involve individuals with mental illness. Using such an imprecise label as “mental illness” in a feeble attempt to assign blame only serves to minimize the real vulnerabilities of those suffering from mental disorders.

Importantly, blaming gun violence on mental illness also creates a false narrative for how these events actually transpire. For instance, many argue that individuals who are mentally ill and plan these shootings are so determined to get guns that any governmental restrictions will be useless. But this interpretation is inherently biased in assuming an individual with mental illness has an unstoppable motive and unbreakable determination. In making these assumptions, anti-gun-control advocates improperly place their own capabilities as someone without mental illness onto someone struggling with it. If I could easily acquire guns, then why shouldn’t they?

But mental illness is not such a simple phenomenon to understand. Depression is not sadness, and schizophrenia is not paranoia. Those without mental illnesses try to understand them in terms they are comfortable with. We have all felt sadness, but we do not all have depression and we certainly do not all understand suicide. The most important aspect to remember is mental illness is an illness. It is a disorder, a pathology of the brain and mind that distorts our self. It is not the default state, nor is it how any one person should be defined.

It is in this way that this argument that gun control is useless for those with mental illness falls apart. For example, let’s extend this same logic to suicide: Why isn’t the suicide rate 100 percent? If those with mental illness truly wanted to kill themselves, then why don’t they?

Mental illnesses are internal struggles, with many thresholds to action. People with depression have to reach a certain mental state to contemplate suicide. Then they will have to reach a desire to act on it. Then they will need to acquire the means. At each one of these steps, there is the opportunity to intervene, whether it be from a healthcare professional, friend, family member or even themselves. By enacting gun control, it is simply another threshold that people with mental illnesses must cross, giving them another chance to rethink what they are doing and seek help. Once you understand this, it is easy to comprehend why gun control is actually the best answer to preventing mental illness deaths.

Instead of generalizing gun control in relation to mental illness, we should focus on taking time to understand the underlying disorders to find evidence-based solutions. The availability of guns is shown repeatedly to have profound effects on suicide. Recently, when Connecticut increased gun-control measures, the firearm-related suicide rate fell significantly. In contrast, when Missouri loosened gun restrictions, the firearm-related suicide rate rose.

Mental health issues should always be taken seriously on a political level, but these kinds of state-level, politically motivated reforms that ignore gun-control measures can often backfire, as strict new rules can actually discourage individuals from seeking mental healthcare in the first place.

People with mental illnesses are not evil. They deserve our sympathy and our help, not our scorn and our blame. Calling them out in a form of political grandstanding to dodge an honest discussion of gun control is cruel and unproductive. If we really want to help improve mental healthcare in this country, we need to start with an honest discussion of how to prioritize decreasing deaths first.

Sai Folmsbee is a Feinberg graduate student. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a letter to the editor to [email protected].

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.