Neither "mentally ill" nor "disabled" means "dangerous"

Alternative facts, it seems, infect us all. When the Republican-held Congress recently voted to block an Obama Administration rule about gun purchases, much of the news and social media coverage and discussion were awash with alternative facts. The regulation carried great political symbolism and evoked passions far beyond its actual effect on public safety. The discussion was largely built on, and served to perpetuate, mistaken notions about people living with disabilities and people with mental illness. Those mistaken notions can and do foster discrimination against those same people.

Family Service Madison is one of Wisconsin’s leading nonprofit providers of services for kids on the Autism spectrum, children and young adults with developmental disabilities, and children and adults dealing with issues of aggression and violence, so these are important issues for us.

The words “mentally ill” were used in the coverage and discussions, often as a political weapon to make opponents seem absurdly reckless (some added the words “severely” or “dangerously” to “mentally ill”). When most of us read or hear “mentally ill” we get a mental image of someone unrestrained by either intellectual judgment or moral reasoning. We conjure up Hannibal Lecter or Norman Bates. In other words, we imagine a person dangerously detached from reality, a person suffering a violent psychosis. Of course, we say to ourselves, it’s irresponsible to allow such people to have guns. Trouble is, that’s an alternative fact, otherwise known as a “falsehood.” That’s not what having a mental illness means.

More important to this discussion: That’s not anything like the standard that the Obama Administration used to decide who would be banned. The standard used was that of having a representative payee (someone designated to help manage a person’s finances) due to a mental health disability. Representative payees are used in a broad range of circumstances—from an aging grandmother delegating finances, to an autistic young adult or a grown man with an anxiety disorder—for people using a representative payee to make sure their rent and bills get paid. Unfortunately, by focusing the prohibition directly on a mental health disability, the rule furthered the mistaken belief that mental illness is a major cause of violence.

Needing help cashing a check does not make you more dangerous than other people. There is no connection between needing assistance in managing finances and being a threat to public safety. There is no research that supports the idea that those who use representative payees are more likely than anyone else to engage in gun violence. In fact, the law creating representative payees allows use of the program “regardless of the legal competency or incompetency of the qualified individual.”

The pro-gun lobby, the gun-control lobby, politicians, news media, and ill-informed people on social media have conditioned us to associate mental illness with violence. The idea that mentally ill means violent is an alternative fact. The actual fact is that only four percent of interpersonal violence is attributable to mental illness alone.

Another actual fact is that the rule perpetuated and threatened to expand the stigmatization of mental illness and discrimination against people living with disabilities. For instance, the rule required that the names of the people covered by the rule be added to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), a federal database that keeps track of those prohibited from purchasing a gun. Many businesses require clearance through the NICS, even for jobs that do not directly require carrying a gun. Even if the representative-payee is appointed temporarily, an individual may be permanently barred from returning to the workforce.

There was a real threat that the rule would set a precedent for other kinds of rights, that needing help with financial matters implies a lack of capacity to exercise other rights. People living with a mental health disability often face an assumption of incapacity, and that assumption becomes an alternative fact with serious real-life costs, such as discrimination in parenting and voting rights. Led by Rep. Tim Murphy (R-PA), who introduced legislation to strip people with mental health disabilities of HIPAA privacy protections, limit their legal aid, and dramatically expand coercive treatment, politicians have pushed the “alternative fact” that those with mental health diagnoses as the real cause of the nation’s gun violence problem.

Back here in real life, where we deal with actual facts, the “mentally ill” are most of us. More than half of Americans will develop a mental illness at some point in our lives, often beginning in childhood or adolescence, according to a massive, recent study. Nearly 20 percent of Americans live with a mental illness in a given year.

Mental illness is part of us the same way that gender, race, and national origin are. We can’t choose whether to have a mental illness. Most Americans will have a mental illness at some point, and having that illness does not make us more dangerous. Knowing these actual facts can be uncomfortable because we become aware of our own biases and of the discriminatory effects of our words and assumptions, as well as those of our friends, the press, politicians, and other leaders. (Discarding the alternative facts about mental illness and gun violence is uncomfortable, too, because it strips from us a convenient scapegoat and forces us to confront the actual “who,” “why” and evidence-based risk factors of violence.)

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