May is Mental Health Month. In the 1840s, nursing activist Dorothea Dix fought for improved living conditions for people suffering from mental illness after observing the unhealthy and dangerous conditions in which many mentally ill people lived around. Dix convinced the American government to build 32 state psychiatric hospitals.
Unfortunately, negative attitudes toward mental illness have persisted into the 21st century, and stigma surrounding mental illness in the United States has increased due to mentally ill people being scapegoated as the cause of gun violence. After 17 people were killed in Parkland, Florida, a strong response was mounted by students and young people across the United States, calling for gun control.
Yet, more mass shootings occurred, most recently at a Waffle House near Nashville, Tennessee. And shootings that are not considered mass shootings happen every day. The National Rifle Association and the Trump administration have blamed mental illness for this gun violence.
The response to the most recent shootings in 2018 have made it clear that the Trump administration is determined to insist that the problems in our nation come from people who are marginalized – in the case of gun violence, people with mental illness are the focus.
Did you know that one in five American adults experiences a mental health issue? Most people with mental illness are not violent, and only 3-5 percent of violent acts can be attributed to people with a serious mental illness. And only 1 percent of mass shootings are related to people with serious mental illness. People with severe mental illnesses are over 10 times more likely to be victims of violent crime.
And yet the NRA and the Trump administration have blamed mental illness for gun violence. The disingenuous call for mental health treatment is simply an effort to trick the populous into not paying attention to the real problem, which is access to semi-automatic weapons. Trump and NRA supporters want us to focus on people with mental illness instead of semi-automatic weapons.
We must not let these tactics guide our efforts to address gun violence. And these “sleight-of-hand” tricks, like, “hey look here, mental illness is the problem,” draw our attention because it’s an easy explanation, but we then ignore other causes, and the problem continues.
And this has worked in the past for other social issues. Muslims have been blamed for terrorism; gangs have been blamed for the opioid epidemic, and China has been blamed for loss of U.S. jobs.
In the case of terrorism, rather than blaming all Muslims, we could address the U.S. interference in foreign affairs that led to the creation of ISIS and also figure out ways to work with other countries to achieve peaceful solutions. In the case of drugs and gang violence, we need to address poor control of prescription drugs that has led to the opioid crisis instead of building a wall. In the case of lack of economic opportunity for U.S. citizens, we need to explore job creation and raising the minimum wage rather than blaming China for taking away our jobs.
And in the case of mass shootings, we need to ban semi-automatic weapons.
To be sure, we need more and better mental health care for those who need it. Mental illness, especially untreated or undertreated mental illness, is a public health problem that needs to be addressed. As nurses, we know ending the stigma and social isolation of people with mental illness must be a top public health priority, to improve worldwide mental health and reduce economic burden. And so, we bring this to the public’s attention during May, Mental Health Month.
But we also need to focus on a better and more effective solution to gun violence, disentangling mental illness from guns. The best solution to reduce gun violence is to get rid of the guns that are responsible.
Mona Shattell, Ph.D., RN, FAAN, is a professor and chair of the Department of Community, Systems, and Mental Health Nursing in the College of Nursing at Rush University in Chicago.
Sarah Oerther, MSN, RN, is the communications chair of the Public Health Nurse Section of the American Public Health Association.
Ellen Olshansky, Ph.D., RN, is a professor and chair of the Department of Nursing at the Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work and professor emerita at the University of California, Irvine Sue & Bill Gross School of Nursing.
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