WA’s largest mental health org: ‘Violence is not a product of mental illness’

May 27, 2022, 6:31 AM
Memorials for victims of Tuesday's mass shooting at a Texas elementary school (Getty Images)...
Memorials for victims of Tuesday's mass shooting at a Texas elementary school (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Since Tuesday’s school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, a lot of people, including Texas Governor Greg Abbott, have blamed the tragedy on mental illness. But Lauren Simonds, CEO of NAMI Washington, the National Alliance of Mental Illness, says that is simply misguided.

“Violence is not a product of mental illness,” Simonds said. “Violence is a product of untreated anger. The contribution of mental illness to overall gun violence in the United States is smaller than two percent. When we do see mental illness involved in gun violence, it’s really gun violence against one’s self because more than 60% of gun deaths in the United States are suicides. Mental illness is a significant underlying cause of suicide. But mental illness is not an underlying cause of community violence.”

Simonds says there are many other warning signs we should look for.

“The risks of violence increase slightly if one has co-occurring substance use or dependency or if one grew up in a setting where there was violence or childhood abuse,” said Simonds. “If they were bullied or, quite honestly another contributing factor is, just being young and male. Are they isolated and young and male? Do they have impulsivity and anger issues? People have a really hard time understanding how somebody could walk in somewhere and shoot people and kill them. They must be mentally ill. What else could it possibly be? It’s untreated anger, and anger is not a mental illness.”

She says this false blame contributes hugely to the stigma around mental illness.

“There can be the assumption that: give us a gun if we have a mental illness and we’re likely to go out and kill somebody,” said Simonds. “And that is not true. So it definitely contributes to the stigma of having a mental illness and people’s willingness to share that they have mental illness. And I think it’s also important to note that other countries experience the same amount of mental illness in their populations and we don’t see mass gun violence or even significant gun violence. And these are countries who, when they have had a mass gun violence incident, their leaders have created common-sense gun laws, which is something that our leaders are unwilling to do. They have clearly accepted that guns are more important than the lives of the citizens of our country.”

But she wants to be clear: NAMI does not advocate for gun rights.

Simonds finds it interesting that gun advocates are using mental illness as a scapegoat, since it’s a topic this country mostly ignored until the pandemic, when worldwide isolation affected nearly everyone’s mental health. Before the pandemic, depression or anxiety was seen by many as a weakness or an excuse.

“Every time there is community gun violence in our country we have been sending out press releases,” said Simonds. “Just a few weeks ago, we sent out a press release about the shooting in Buffalo, which was incredibly racially motivated. I didn’t get one press call. Since I sent out our press release this morning, all I’ve done is respond to press calls. So it just really depends upon on what catches the media’s eye at what time.”

Simonds would like to see the media cover mental health more often, through stories not related to gun violence.

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WA’s largest mental health org: ‘Violence is not a product of mental illness’