Terror is not a mental disorder

Once again, America faces an unfathomable act of gun violence – and once again, like clockwork, pundits and politicians are eager to blame the problem on the “mentally ill”.

“Mental illness and hate pull the trigger. Not the gun,” Trump said this week.

This is factually and ethically wrong. I know this because of the plethora of statistics available on the matter, and because I have ADHD – a mental disorder – and a gun license in Massachusetts, which has some of the gun laws the most restrictive in the country.

The “mentally ill” – that is, people with real and diagnosable brain disorders – make up about 20% of the population. But they are responsible for less than 5% of gun-related murders, which means they are actually less violent than the average neurotypical (i.e. “normal”) person. In fact, they are more likely to be victims than perpetrators of gun violence in the United States.

Loosely defined “mental health” deviations… make things worse for those who actually struggle with their brain’s natural biological functions.

People with ADHD, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), autism, or even borderline personality disorder are able to lead fulfilling lives and act rationally as functioning members of society. . None of these conditions affect a person’s ability to handle a gun responsibly. And none of them make someone more likely to do something as audacious as mass murdering people, as we just saw in El Paso and Dayton.

Whatever our political convictions, we want to separate ourselves from these monstrous acts. We want to find a reason to say “I’m not like these people.” It’s easy to blame this distinction on the brain – to dismiss these horrors as some kind of cognitive aberration. But racism and terrorism are not based on mental illness. As Hannah Arendt observed during the Adolf Eichmann war crimes trial, normal people are quite capable of doing terrible things.

To be clear: taking the life of another human being is antisocial behavior, and it’s absolutely abhorrent. But you don’t need a diagnosable, genetic chemical imbalance in your brain to do that. In fact, there is extensive academic research to refute this link.

Gloria Garces kneels before crosses at a makeshift memorial near the scene of a mass shooting at a shopping complex Tuesday, August 6, 2019 in El Paso, Texas. (AP/John Locher)

More often than not, violence is a byproduct of anger, not mental illness. Blaming the behavior of mass murderers on mental illness sends a message, inadvertently or otherwise, that those of us who suffer from mental illness are evil. While it’s true that some mass shooters suffered from mental illness, the overwhelming majority of those responsible for the more than 2,000 mass shootings since Sandy Hook in 2012 have not. A 2018 study published by the FBI found that 62% of shooters suffered from some form of mental stress (like the aforementioned anger issues), but only 25% had ever been diagnosed with a mental disorder. That might raise an eyebrow, until you consider that mass shootings account for less than 1% of all gun deaths in America.

The rhetoric linking sanity and violent impulses discourages people from seeking the medical help they need. It reinforces existing stigmas around mental health and makes people feel ashamed of the cognitive impairments they were born with. Studies show that only about 20% of adults with mental disorders actively seek treatment each year, while 40% go completely without treatment.

That being said: there are two instances where mental health plays a clear role in gun violence.

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, nearly two-thirds of all gun deaths are suicides, and nearly half of all suicides are gun deaths. The majority of these victims are men, often from the army, and mostly over 45 years old.

More often than not, violence is a byproduct of anger, not mental illness.

Most suicide attempts are impulsive and 70% of people who survive an attempt will not try again, but only about 10% of people survive a firearm suicide attempt. If we wanted to reduce gun deaths in America, this would be a place to start (and increasing mandatory waiting times to buy a gun would help).

Yesterday, the second area where mental health comes into play in gun deaths is gang-related violence, especially in poor inner cities.

Donald Trump and his fellow fearmongers about Chicago and Baltimore, with racist language about rat-infested dens of drugs and violence. What they don’t talk about is the stress of poverty and how the desire to escape its grip can fuel gangs that provide an illusion of safety and security. Even schools in some of these communities treat young people like criminals, fueling the school-to-jail pipeline. (There’s a similar dynamic with people who seek a sense of solace and power by joining groups like ISIS.) All of this compounds, causing complex PTSD that tends to go undiagnosed, which, to its turn, contributes to violence. But so few politicians and experts talk about access to mental health services in our inner cities; instead, they launch thinly veiled racist attacks blaming the “culture” of the downtown area. The diagnosis of “mental illness” is reserved for white men.

Gun violence is a complicated problem. (I would actually say it’s five different problems, with five different solutions). biological functions of their brain.

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