Mental Illness and Mass Shootings: The Facts

Mental Illness and Mass Shootings: One thought, one part of the equation...and the Facts

Preface: The following sentiments were shared by me on social media, as I watched the horror of  the Parkland Schools shooting unfold. (I've written many times on helping kids deal with tragedies. Here is one such writing specific for school tragedies.) The visceral reaction was equal to what I've experienced each and every time I've seen the breaking news about similar such situations. First, my heart and prayers go out to all affected by the trauma and grief of it all. I know full well the toll this takes all the victims and their families. My mind always replays what I know to my core to be true, as a mental health provider and as an early childhood mental health consultant with an expertise in trauma...and it's all about taking a HUGE preventative step. This is only one part of the equation, but I believe it to be a significant is what I wrote. It's time we work hard on prevention and not just helping children and adults cope in the aftermath. Any italicized areas are what I added to create more understanding for this post. Below my own sentiments are the facts about mental illness and mass shootings. We need to all have the facts so that we can proceed most effectively, so these kinds of tragedies may be prevented in the future. 

Mamas and Daddies, 

Go home and love your babies, your children, your teens and young adults. 

Not because of what just happened in Florida...but to stop it from ever happening again. This is a complex issue, but a huge part of this boils down to neuroscience in the most simplistic way. 

We can talk about gun control and mental health...but the bottom line of this is attachment, empathy, connectedness and relationship...these are the building blocks of mental wellness that traverse a lifetime. THESE are the things that change brains and help them develop in the most healthy way. 

When a human being is loved and treated with empathy and understanding...and they feel connected and like they are part of something bigger than themselves, this kind of thing could not happen. When a child is treated with empathy, he learns what it feels like to be safe, cared for and loved...and can then extend that to all other human beings. 

If this tragedy is incomprehensible to you, it's because you (like me) are one of the lucky ones. Likely 99.9% of you reading this are one of the lucky ones. We got what we needed growing up. We were loved on enough, empathized with enough, kept safe enough. When kids fail to get that...their brains are changed (they develop in a healthy, well-adjusted manner).

I'm aware there are plenty of people who have grown up without these basic things who have not harmed others, not taken out their rage on the masses, and for that, I am grateful. 

What I know is that brains that fail to get the good stuff they need are at much higher risk of doing unthinkable things...because of the way their brains were built. 

image source: @sparklepear

A Proactive Approach

Infant/Maternal mental health, early childhood mental health and responding lovingly and with support (not punishment and disdain) when kids make mistakes is what is going to save us all. Being responsive to babies is going to save us. We need to protect children from trauma, which is known to rewire the brain. We can all have a part in supporting the youngest among us. But the babies seem easy enough for us to love and support. 

What about the teens, once babies, who didn't get that love/support/empathy...ever? What about those infants, children and teens who have already been exposed to trauma? We need to be there for them, too. We need to build relationships to repair brains...we need to care...UGH! How we treat each other matters. How we treat infants, children and teens matters. I watched in horror once more, as the news unfolded about this school shooting in Florida. Praying for all that have been impacted by this senseless tragedy. And praying that, once more, we can all realize that we truly do belong to each other...and how we treat each other matters. And that maybe, we can start to get it right. To my core, I know this is a HUGE part of all of this. It's going to remain true that it's hurt people who hurt people. We are ALL part of the solution, because we can all be kind to those who need it most. The neuroscience is clear on this. Fingers pull triggers, but brains send the message to do so. How healthy are the brains of the kids you know, work with and teach?

_________________ The End____________________

Now, the facts:

Mental Illness and Gun Violence: A Common Misconception, Debunked

We often take up the glad fight about the failure of the mental health system in these times of tragedy. As someone who is part of that system, I know full well the limitations inherent within the system. Limitations that frustrate and anger those who have to deliver services within it. It's not a perfect system, that's for sure. Still, it's not a direct failure of the mental health system that creates, contributes to or causes these tragedies. 

In fact, 

Most mentally ill people are not dangerous. And yet public perception lags miles behind this reality.... In fact, only 3-5% of firearm assaults are linked to people with serious mental illness and those with mental illness are more likely than others to be the victim of a crime..."

If 3-5% of firearm assaults are linked to people with serious mental illness, we certainly have to start looking for other solutions to our current crisis. According to Drs. Knoll and Annas, in a publication from the American Psychiatric Association,  "Although gun restriction laws that focus broadly on mental illness are an understandable initial reaction, they will be extremely low yield and wasteful of scant resources. Furthermore, such laws perpetuate the myth that mental illness leads to violence and gives the public the incorrect message that mental illness is significantly associated with gun violence directed toward others."

And here's another fact:

  • Rates of violent crime victimization are 12 times higher among the population of persons with serious mental illness than among the overall U.S. population. {Source}

I can tell you, as someone who has worked with individuals with mental illness for close to 30 years, what the research says is exactly what I've seen in reality. There is no doubt in my mind. None.

So Now What?

This is perhaps one of the most balanced approaches I have seen on this topic, and it originates from the American Mental Health Counselors Association:

And here are some suggested policy and program interventions: 
  • Firearm prohibitions should be expanded to include: 
  • More individuals with a history of violent behavior, which greatly increases the risk for perpetration of future violence toward others.   
  • Specifically, individuals convicted of violent misdemeanor crimes and those subject to ex parte domestic violence restraining orders should be temporarily prohibited from purchasing or possessing firearms. 
  • Individuals with a history of risky substance use, which heightens risk of violence toward others.   
  • Specifically, individuals convicted of multiple DWIs or DUIs and multiple misdemeanor crimes involving controlled substances should be temporarily prohibited from purchasing or possessing firearms. {Source}

There is No Question

There is no question, this is a multi-faceted, complex problem, which requires a multi-faceted, complex solution...and my simplistic thoughts are one part of the equation, but the one thing we can all do, the one thing we are capable of, is how we treat the youngest among us, how we support and help our neighbors who are struggling to do the same, how we respond to youth known to have been exposed to trauma and violence and less than optimal life experiences. 

We can all make a difference. Let's start in our own homes. Once we have done so, let's help our neighbors do the same.

Sources for further reading, cited above:

Gun Violence and Mental Illness by the American Psychiatric Association

Community Violence Perpetration and Victimization Among Adults with Mental Illnesses

Gun Violence and Mental Illness: Myths and Evidence Based Facts

This is just scratching the surface. There is so much more available to review and think about and I invite you to do so.

Wendy Young, LMSW, BCD, is  the mom of 3, founder of Kidlutions and co-author of BLOOM: 50 Things to Say, Think and Do with Anxious, Angry and Over-the-Top Kids, co-creator of BLOOM Brainsmarts, and creator of The Joyful Parent. She is the creator of numerous workbooks and resources to help from the preschool through the teen years. She is a practicing Child & Adolescent Therapist.

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