Gun violence, mental illness, and common ground measures

I have been heartened by the response to yesterday’s blog post on gun violence and gun control.  The conversations that have arisen have been, for the most part, respectful and constructive.  In the course of those conversations, many respondents have cited the connection between gun violence and mental illness.  I agree that this connection is a vitally important component of the conversation.  Especially so, because in our nation and particularly in the State of Texas, we face a critical lack of mental health resources.

On a recent mental health resources report card, the National Alliance of Mental Health gave both the United States and Texas a grade of “D”.  With regard to Texas, the report states, “Lack of community services in Texas results in significantly overcrowded emergency rooms and inappropriate use of prisons as warehouses for people with mental illness.”  Indeed, the Harris County Jail is, by default, the largest mental health facility in Texas.  The lack of mental health resources is particularly acute in East Texas.  Whereas in Austin, there is one professional therapist per 1500 residents, in East Texas there is 1 therapist for every 10,000 residents.  It is an untenable situation.

In the absence of sufficient governmental funding for mental healthcare, two institutions on whose boards I’m proud to serve are making a difference.

  • The Beacon, through its Cathedral Clinic, serves the homeless and also intercepts mentally ill inmates as they are released from jail to provide psychiatric treatment and mental health counseling.
  • The Bishop Dena Harrison Fellows Program, launched just last night by the The Seminary of the Southwest and underwritten by a $3 million gift from the Episcopal Health Foundation, funds three-year internships for new licensed professional counselors (who train at the seminary) to serve in rural East Texas.

I encourage anyone interested in contributing to tangible, positive social change to support either (or both!) of these very worthy causes.

Turning specifically to the connection between mental illness and gun violence, in a 2014 interview Duke University professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences Jeffrey Swanson offers this:

“People with serious mental illness are 3 to 4 times more likely to be violent than those who aren’t. But the vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent and never will be.  Most violence in society is caused by other things.  Even if we had a perfect mental health care system, that is not going to solve our gun violence problem. If we were able to magically cure schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression, that would be wonderful, but overall violence would go down by only about 4 percent.

A 2001 study looked specifically at 34 adolescent mass murderers, all male. 70 percent were described as a loner. 61.5 percent had problems with substance abuse. 48 percent had preoccupations with weapons. 43.5 percent had been victims of bullying. Only 23 percent had a documented psychiatric history of any kind ― which means 3 out of 4 did not.”

Clearly the perpetrators of these crimes were mentally disturbed, but the challenge is that the vast majority were not diagnosably mentally ill.  Is there, then, no way to identify those at greatest risk of committing acts of violence using firearms?  Swanson says there actually is:

“If someone has a history of any kind of violent or assaultive behavior, that’s actually a better predictor of future violence than having a mental health diagnosis. If someone has a conviction for a violent misdemeanor…there’s evidence, they ought to be prohibited [from owning guns.] Things like a history of two DUI or DWI convictions, being subject to a temporary domestic violence restraining order, or convicted of two or more misdemeanor crimes involving a controlled substance in a five-year period.”

Shannon Frattaroli, an associate professor of health policy and management at the Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins University, agrees with Swanson. “Substantial research finds that the strongest predictor of future violence is past violent behavior,” she explains.  Beth McGinty, also a Johns Hopkins professor, adds another predictor: “Drug and alcohol abuse are also associated with increased risk of violence toward self and others.”

Swanson, Frattaroli, and McGinty are all members of the Consortium of Risk-Based Firearm Policy. The Consortium released a study in 2013 which addresses the risk factors for gun violence comprehensively.  Based upon their research, the Consortium also offers a set of recommendations for gun policy:

“The report calls for strengthening current policies banning access to firearms for people with histories of involuntary treatment for mental illness…[and] offers a new “risk-based” paradigm to supercede the long-established model of gun rights restrictions focused on mental health. The report calls for temporary restrictions of up to five years on the purchase and possession of firearms by individuals convicted of violent misdemeanors, domestic violence, or more than one drug or alcohol conviction within a certain period – all of which are behaviors that demonstrate an elevated risk of violence, even when not accompanied by a record of mental illness…In all instances of temporary restrictions, there should be a process for individuals to have their rights restored when they no longer pose a significant risk of harming themselves or others.”

It seems to me this is a good place to start.  The recommendations call for restricting firearms from those who demonstrably have shown a propensity toward violence, who, in fact, have broken the law.  People of good will disagree on many proposed gun control measures, but these recommendations provide a space for common ground that could appreciably reduce gun violence in our society.

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3 thoughts on “Gun violence, mental illness, and common ground measures

  1. I believe this is a good place to start for mental illness and like sorts of predictable behaviors; however gun deaths involving mental illness and mass murders are responsible for something about 10% of guns deaths. I support the proposals,but there is much more to be done.

  2. Yes, there needs to be more control on gun purchasing, and on the gun placement once bought and brought into the home. To place those with mental illness on a permanent ban, while allowing those with more forward tendencies (read aggressive behavior, drug, alcohol history), as something that could be worked off in a 5 year increment, completely belies the understanding of both mental illness and/or addictions, or addictive behaviors. All, are lifetime factors that need to be understood in view of its context. Ex.: Ob. Compulsive Behavior, a ‘predictive illness’ and so a mental illness, can be good or bad in this light. Good if used in the ICU, as all are reading each others notes and double checking (dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s) on all factors in the treatment of patients towards recovery. Some mental illness, are not a predictable behavior, hence numerous re-classifications within the field of psychiatry. Mental illness is a gift that (many classified as such), use to their and others benefit, be it an artist, or researcher. One would do well to gather a list of those notable with a mental illness, and then see the benefit of defining mental illness in this context also. Perhaps we should study why seemingly ‘normal’ classified people watch 24 hour news channels who use viewing polls to market news bytes, instead of reading peer reviewed journals to gather knowledge and make their own better informed decisions on those with mental illnesses. How do we classify this risk factor?

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