NYT: Response to Article Linking Violence and Psychiatric Disability

NYAPRS Note: In a NYT article from 12/22 entitled “When the Right to Bear Arms Includes the Mentally Ill”, the author states once that “A vast majority of people with mental illnesses are not violent”. Otherwise, the content of the article is based on a presumption that persons with psychiatric disabilities or emotional disturbances are volatile, and that lawmakers around the country have been unable to find a proper balance in containing the threat such individuals pose to public health. The stated implication is that the balance is between safety and maintaining second amendment rights; there is no mention of balance between public safety and effective treatment, recovery, and personal choice. There is also no broader discussion about the traumatic or emotional incidents that lead persons to gun violence in general, nor any conclusive data regarding gun deaths or possession of firearms, nor the inclusion of a recovery voice.

Below are two excellent “Letters to the Editor”-one from Susan Rogers, the Director of the National Mental Health Consumers’ Self-Help Clearinghouse-that were published online yesterday. Advocates must continue to offer a strong voice in presenting the rights and realities of persons with lived experience. It must also be our responsibility to identify and promote solutions for all individuals and families that cope with violent inclinations or behavior as a result of trauma or a lack of engagement. The letters below provide a template for how to approach media with these significant concerns and alternative perspectives.

To the Editor:

As someone who has a mental illness, I was dismayed to read your article about guns and violence. It misses the point, which is that the United States needs much stronger gun control laws for everyone.

Although the prevalence of mental health conditions is about the same around the world, the “U.S. firearm homicide rate is 20 times higher than the combined rates of 22 countries that are our peers in wealth and population,” according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. That is because of the ease of acquiring firearms here.

Although your article does correctly state that the “vast majority of people with mental illnesses are not violent,” this kind of coverage can only add to the discrimination and prejudice associated with mental health conditions and drive people away from seeking treatment.

Philadelphia, Dec. 23, 2013

To the Editor:

Your article refers to a “widely cited study” by Dr. Jeffrey W. Swanson finding that 33 percent of people with a serious mental illness reported past violent behavior, compared with 15 percent of people without such a disorder.

Yet Dr. Swanson, in an article entitled “Gun Laws and Mental Illness: How Sensible Are the Current Restrictions?,” also concluded that the contribution to public safety of laws that restrict firearm access to people with mental illness “is likely to be small because only 3 to 5 percent of violent acts are attributable to serious mental illness, and most do not involve guns.”

Identifying factors associated with violence is complex. Research suggests that demographics - being young, male and of lower socioeconomic status - are the major determinants of violence. A national coalition of mayors, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, conducted an analysis of every mass shooting in America that occurred between 2009 and 2013. It found a strong connection (57 percent of cases) between mass shootings and domestic or family violence, compared with 11 percent of these events involving a mental health issue.

Focusing on mental illness and gun control as a means of promoting public safety reinforces the mental health stigma and misses the boat.


Brooklyn, Dec. 23, 2013