Guest column: Look behind the cry of ‘mental illness’ to explain mass shootings | Opinion
Uvalde weeps, and we weep with them. The tragedy that occurred in this small town in Texas is unthinkable. We pray for the parents who had to bury their children and the loved ones of the two missing teachers.
Since the Uvalde school massacre, 33 mass shootings have killed 34 other people and injured 157 other Americans. Indeed, the number of mass shootings is climbing. The Gun Violence Archive reports that data collected daily from more than 7,500 law enforcement, media, government and business sources reflects a steady increase: 417 in 2019; 610 in 2020; 692 in 2021. As of June 6, 2022, the country has already experienced 247.
It is a complex public health epidemic that, to be tackled, must be better understood. Contrary to widely held belief, mental illness is not the cause of these horrific tragedies. A number of factors contribute to this. As psychiatrists and health care providers, we offer clinical and medical resources to people with mental health issues in our community. Undiagnosed and untreated emotional trauma during a person’s formative years can cause a person to act like a teenager or young adult, but emotional baggage does not necessarily lead to mental illness.
It is crucial that we, as a community, do not focus on previous diagnoses of mental illness. The empirical evidence is clear: people with psychiatric diagnoses are more likely to be victims of gun violence than to be perpetrators. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, most people with mental illness are not violent and only 3-5% of violent acts can be attributed to people with severe mental illness. In fact, people with serious mental illnesses are more than 10 times more likely to be victims of violent crime than the general population.
Although publicity about these shootings is inevitable, it is a contributing factor. The would-be shooter views media coverage of a shooting as a way to gain exposure. Some even viewed their heinous acts as a competition. Denying them notoriety is a step. Don’t say their names.
Some shooters telegraphed their intentions verbally or through written plans and social media. Children and adults should be encouraged to say something if they see, hear or read something. It also represents a measure of control that everyone can exercise.
Safe gun ownership is another factor. We respect the Second Amendment and responsible gun ownership. It has been proposed to raise the age of possession of firearms. Biologically, our brain continues to develop into adulthood. While the amygdala, the area of the brain responsible for aggressive behavior, develops early, the frontal cortex, the part of the brain that controls reasoning and foresight, develops much later. Teenagers are certainly able to tell right from wrong, but they often act impulsively, misread social cues and engage in inappropriate behaviors.
Beyond these factors lies a less tangible contributor: lack of respect and compassion for others. No one is immune to gun violence. Students in classrooms, the elderly, worshipers in church, shoppers in grocery stores, moviegoers, high school graduates – none of them are immune. This was displayed recently at the Morris Jeff Community School graduation festivities on the campus of Xavier University here in New Orleans. Shortly after the ceremony ended, shots were fired as the graduates and their friends and families poured into the parking lot, resulting in the death of a graduate’s grandmother. Instantly, the day changed from a day of celebration to a day of loss and tragedy.
Mental health can be a factor in gun violence, but it is not the only consideration. Our country must respond forcefully to this public health crisis. As a society, we must strive to see the humanity in everyone. Until we focus mental health on these other contributors, we will continue to live with the angst and anxiety of systemic gun violence that affects so many of us today.
Rahn K. Bailey, MD, is chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Steve Nelson, MD, is acting chancellor of LSU Health New Orleans School of Medicine.