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Scapegoating Mental Illness

The tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary last year is forever burned into our memories. Out of unimaginable pain and sorrow, many surviving families have arisen to fight for ways to prevent similar events from ever happening again. I am thankful for their determination and perseverence.

Sadly, though, many officials have found a scapegoat that they’re trying to offload future possible disasters onto: the mentally ill. It’s been in the news repeatedly all year: We must identify the mentally ill. We must keep the mentally ill from owning guns. If we can control the mentally ill, gun violence will decrease.

This week the Kansas City Star ran an article about efforts by a suburban police department to keep schools safe. The police chief is quoted in the article as saying:
“…there should be a push to identify people with mental illnesses who show signs that they could become a threat…We have to be sophisticated enough to find out the ones who are harmless and the ones who are not.”

Never mind that, according to the American Journal of Psychiatry, less than 4% of violence in the U.S. can be attributed to people with mental illnesses. Never mind that diagnosis of mental illness is possibly the least exact science in existence. Never mind that treatment for and care for the mentally ill is such an incredibly low priority that mental illness is the third largest cause of homelesness in the U.S. According to this police chief – and many politicians and policy wonks – we need to suddenly start precisely identifying which mentally ill people are likely to get hold of guns and start shooting people.

Pointing officious fingers at those who are struggling with various psychiatric diagnoses will exponentially increase the stigma of mental illness, but will do nothing to stop gun violence.

As an aside, I’d like to state for the record that our schools (and by that I mean the schools in my suburb – I can’t speak for anyone else’s schools) are safe. I’ve worked in them, volunteered in them, dropped our kids off at them every day for the last 18 years. Horrifying events like the Sandy Hook shooting are NOT the norm, and our children are in no more danger today than they were last November, pre-tragedy.

What’s changed is that our nation was reminded that guns are dangerous; that the NRA has redoubled its efforts to pretend that guns are safe and necessary; that people struggling with mental illness have been made public scapegoats.

And that is yet another tragedy.



4 Responses

  1. As the mother of a son with Asperger’s, I agree with you 100%. Thank you for writing this post!

  2. very well said. the problem is gun laws, not mental illness (which, as you say, covers a very wide spectrum and there’s very little correlation to taint those with such illnesses with being violent)..

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