Tom Gangel: Bad information
April 14, 2013
Regarding recent articles and letters to the editor concerning Colorado gun legislation, I'd like to address critical inaccuracies and misrepresentations. To be fair, the items in the Steamboat Today are not alone in singling out mental illness as a cause of violence and the answer to effective gun control. This nonscientific and inaccurate point of view can be damaging to our communities' health.
The research and evidence clearly do not support this position. Statistics instead indicate that those with mental illness are 1) much more likely to be a victim than a perpetrator of violence and 2) if a mentally ill individual does become violent, that violence is usually directed against oneself. But one must acknowledge the current burden of stigma surrounding mental illness. It is not in anyone's best interest to increase stigma, deterring people from seeking treatment by linking common mental illness to the ability to purchase and own a gun.
We, the public, tend to ease our fears by thinking that those who perpetrate mass murder or violence must be mentally ill. We do this because we like to think that those with mental illness are very different from us. The fact is they are us. One in five of us suffers from a mental illness sometime during our lives. This means that most everybody lives, works or knows someone diagnosed with mental illness. Often, we have no idea who around us has a mental illness.
We also like to think that those who commit violent acts are different from us, as well. But the vast majority of violence is perpetrated by the general population. Research shows that 96 percent of mass murders (four or more people killed) were perpetrated by persons without a diagnosable mental illness. Clearly, putting the focus of gun legislation and blame for this violence on the mentally ill doesn't fix this issue.
I am in full agreement that more support and resources need be allocated to those with a mental illness or substance-abuse problem. It would make our country and our cities friendlier, more productive places to live. But it would not solve the problem of gun violence.
The real predictors of violence appear to be loss — such as divorce, romantic breakup or loss of a job — or trauma — such as abuse as a child, domestic violence or bullying. Studies show that frequent or intense anger can be predictors of violence, too. All of these conditions occur in the general population just as frequently as they do among those with mental illness. All of these conditions are exacerbated by substance abuse, especially alcohol abuse.
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We have serious societal issues that we must address, but the hard fact is that persons with mental illness are less, not more, dangerous or prone to violence than you or I. Any legislation or propagated belief that reinforces stigma regarding acknowledging mental illness or seeking treatment for it is misguided.
Colorado West Regional Mental Health regional director