OPINION

Mr. President, Demonizing People With Mental Illness Won’t Stop Mass Shootings

Early last month, President Donald Trump blamed mass shootings on people with mental illness, calling them “monsters.” Two weeks later, he revisited reopening mental “institutions” for “these people.”

Words matter, Mr. President. “These people” are our friends, neighbors, children, and spouses. They’re not “monsters,” “the mentally ill” or “crazy people” – they’re us. Statements like these only perpetuate stereotypes, marginalizing and isolating the one in five people with mental illness in our country.

The truth is that people with mental illness have a lower risk of violence than the rest of the population. And they’re actually 23 times more likely to be victims of violence than everyone else.

Blaming mass shootings on people with mental health conditions and recommending locking them up is simply a distraction from the real issue at hand: In the United States, it’s easier to get a gun than to get mental health care.

Buying a gun can be as easy as ordering one from your laptop or going to a gun show. In many states, there are no licenses, registration or permits required to purchase a gun. Compare that to how hard it is to access mental health care.

Only 43 percent of people with mental illness accessed care in the last year. There is a severe shortage of mental health professionals — more than 60 percent of all counties in the United States do not even have a single psychiatrist.

Political leaders should be focused on helping people get the care they need rather than demonizing them to distract for the lack of sensible gun policy. The National Alliance on Mental Illness, the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization, supports gun violence restraining order laws or so-called “red flag” laws — as long as they don’t unfairly target people with mental illness. These laws should allow the removal of guns from anyone who poses a real, evidence-based risk of violence to themselves or others.

It is true that there is a mental health crisis in our country. But instead of focusing on our nation’s dark past when people were locked up in often-horrific conditions without proper treatment, we urge the administration to focus on improving access to mental health care. There are common-sense approaches that we know are effective and that can be implemented now to improve access to mental health services.

Half of all chronic mental illnesses begin by age 14, and three-quarters start by age 24. Despite effective treatment, there are long delays — sometimes decades — between the first appearance of symptoms and when people get help.

Yet the earlier people get help, the better the outcome. Treatment programs like coordinated specialty care provide early help and change the trajectory of mental illness for people who are experiencing the first signs and symptoms of a disease.

Three in 100 people will experience psychosis in their lives, and the first episode typically occurs between age 16 and 25. When someone enters CSC, they are assigned a case manager, get medication and primary care, receive psychotherapy, are offered family education and support, and get assistance with employment and education.

These programs reduce symptoms, limit hospitalizations and save taxpayers money. There are currently over 265 CSC programs across the country, but far more are needed to make early and effective care available to everyone in need.

It shouldn’t be difficult to get mental health care. One way to expand access is through Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics. These clinics offer 24-hour crisis care, are less traumatizing settings than hospitals, provide care coordination, integrate primary and mental health care, and much more.

CCBHCs are just getting started in many states, but they are already showing success. Congress not only needs to extend the pilot program but also increase funding so that CCBHCs become a standard across the nation.

Finally, jails and prisons shouldn’t be today’s mental health institutions. Instead, we need to divert people from the criminal justice system. Crisis intervention teams, which are common in more and more communities, are a place to start. CIT-trained officers have the skills to safely and effectively work with people in crisis.

But more is needed. Officers need real community options, starting with crisis services and intensive community-based interventions that help people get back on the road to recovery. Instead of getting handcuffed, people need to get effective treatment.

When it comes to stopping gun violence, Americans don’t need scapegoats — we need solutions. We must recognize that those with mental illness need care and compassion. It’s time to stop blaming mental illness for mass shootings and start making improving mental health care a national priority.

 

Angela Kimball is the acting CEO of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization.

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