May is Mental Health Awareness Month. I have a mental illness. Along with me, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, 1 in 5 Americans can say the same thing. Except for the occasional violent thought toward a dangerous driver that puts my and others’ lives at risk, I am not prone to violence. Neither are nearly all other mentally ill people. And yet, with every (near daily) report of a mass shooting in this country, cries go up about the problem of mental illness and the need for mental health resources. Despite the vast research-based evidence1 that confirms access to firearms is the main (not only) factor that impacts the preponderance of gun-related violence, untreated mental illness is consistently lifted up as the cause.
The false connection made between gun violence and mental illness is reflected in recent legislation. In June 2022, the United States Senate passed the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act. On Senator Lisa Murkowski’s website, in the announcement that she voted for the measure, it states the act is “targeted legislation to address gaps in the law that have enabled mass shootings, including the need for additional mental health and school safety resources.” It also clearly states that “The bill does NOT infringe on the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens; and it does NOT create universal background checks, mental health checks or mandatory or de-facto waiting periods.” In other words, the bill does nothing to regulate or limit access to firearms. But it does provide a total of over $13 billion to bolster public safety and programs to help stop tragedies before they occur, mostly through substantial investments in mental health initiatives.
There are two connections between gun violence and mental illness that are rarely spoken of in the national conversation. First, according to a 2021 study by the CDC, most gun deaths are not happening in mass shootings or with rifles, commonly referred to as assault weapons. They are mostly suicides (54%) and homicides (43%) committed using handguns. And since most suicides are related to severe depression, it is fair to say that those who struggle with mental illness are more likely to be the victim of gun violence than the perpetrator of any mass shootings.
A May 2022 article by the New York Times titled “What Gun Violence Does to Our Mental Health” reports that in a 2018 survey conducted by the Harris Poll for the American Psychological Association, 75 percent of young people between 15 and 21 said that mass shootings were significant sources of stress for them. Most adults ranging in age from 22 to 72 said the same. People, especially children, who live near the site of a mass shooting or where gun violence is frequent report PTSD symptoms like headaches, stomach aches, elevated anxiety, and fears about safety in general. So, not only are people with mental illness NOT responsible for gun violence against others, we have evidence that it is the other way around!
Instead of addressing the real problems that contribute to gun violence, like access to firearms and high levels of stress caused by economic insecurity, we have decided to blame mental illness. As someone with mental illness and as a person of faith, this is profoundly troubling. Scripture says, “When you tell the truth, justice is done, but lies lead to injustice…A lie has a short life, but truth lives on forever” (Proverbs 12:17,19).
We need people of faith to insist on the truth about what is happening based on sound research. This misguided approach to curbing gun violence also stigmatizes a group of people who already fight unhelpful misconceptions and stigmas. People with mental illness are not responsible for mass shootings. Full stop. To perpetuate this myth is to bear false witness against our neighbors. And finally, it cruelly binds those who would call out this lie for fear that when we name it, resources to treat mental health issues, which ARE VERY MUCH NEEDED, will be withdrawn or denied. People with mental illness should not have to sacrifice the truth or their dignity to get the help they need.
As people who claim to follow Jesus, this is more than just a pet issue to take up when it hits close to home. We claim to follow the Prince of Peace who did not retaliate as he suffered an unjust and violent death. Without arguing for pacifism, the Jesus people should be people who can be counted on to resist and condemn every kind of violence. Jesus has commanded us to care for the wellbeing of our neighbors, not vilify or stigmatize them, especially using misinformation and lies. In this moment, with Resurrection Sunday not so far behind us, we have been given the gift of eternal and abundant Life. So, while death and violence abound, may we be the ones who find ways to speak and act in just, truthful and life affirming ways for all.