Americans are united around the reasonable and limited proposition, that people with serious mental illnesses should not own guns. But one group takes umbrage: mental health advocates. In the wake of incidents such as the one at Newtown, the advocates immediately issue press releases claiming that people with mental illness are no more violent than others and should not be the target of gun control efforts.
How can the chasm be so wide? Who is right? The public that believes mental illness is associated with violence, or the experts who claim it is not? The science of violence becomes clear when you look at the totality of mental illness violence studies versus any single study. The definitive answer is: It depends on who is mentally ill.
- Studies of the 40 to 50 percent of Americans whom mental health experts claim have some "diagnosable mental disorder" support the claim that "persons with mental illness are not more violent than others." But the populations in those studies are disingenuously large.
- Studies of the 5 percent of Americans with the most serious mental illnesses -- primarily schizophrenia and treatment-resistant bipolar disorder -- who are receiving treatment also support the claim of mental-health experts that "persons with mental illness are not more violent than others." But these studies prove only that treatment works, not that persons with mental illness are not more prone to violence.
- Studies of the 5 percent of subgroup of the most seriously mentally ill who are not in treatment and are psychotic, delusional, or hallucinating, or are off treatment that has previously prevented them from being violent, are in fact more prone to violence than others.
When people ask whether the mentally ill are more violent, they usually mean this group of severely ill individuals and not their friends on Zoloft, Prozac, etc.
Another disconnect: While mental health advocates claim that people with mental illness are no more prone to violence than others, they also claim that to prevent violence, more money is needed for mental health treatment. Both claims cannot be true. If mental illness is not a cause then more treatment is not a solution.
Finally, the mental health advocates claim more money is needed to identify who is mentally ill so instances of mass murder can be reduced. But according to media reports Jared Loughner, who shot Gabrielle Giffords; James Holmes, who shot up a movie theater in Aurora, Colo.; John Hinckley Jr., who shot President Ronald Reagan; Aaron Bassler, who shot the former mayor of Fort Bragg; Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, who mailed explosive packages; Ian Stawicki, who shot five others and himself in a Seattle café; Eduardo Sencion, who shot National Guardsmen at a Nevada IHOP restaurant; Russell Weston, who shot two guards at the U.S. Capitol building; and Adam Lanza, who shot his mother, 26 others and himself in Newtown, Conn.-- all were all known to be ill before they became a headline. Identification wasn't lacking. Treatment was.
Until the mental health establishment openly and honestly admits there is an issue of violence among people with untreated serious mental illness, they simply do not deserve a table at the public debate. And when public officials rely on these advocates for direction, one has to ask, "Who's crazy?"
D. J. Jaffe is executive director of Mental Illness Policy Org., a think tank specializing in the intersection of violence and serious mental illness