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Misguided and offensive

People who suffer from mental illness are not inherently more violent than the rest of us. They do not deserve to be the focus of our country’s efforts to curb mass shootings.

Louis Josephson, Ph.D., is the president and chief executive officer of the Brattleboro Retreat.


Following the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., our nation is once again deadlocked in a debate over how to put an end to the seemingly endless string of gun-related tragedies playing out in our schools and places of work.

President Trump has suggested that we can solve the problem by arming teachers. He has also suggested that we should open more mental hospitals as a way of getting perpetrators of these crimes “out of our communities.”

As the CEO of a psychiatric institution, I’m generally in favor of expanding mental-health services and investing in the psychiatric and addiction programs our citizens sorely need.

But to suggest that we can stop the plague of mass shootings by opening more mental hospitals is both misguided and offensive.

* * *

The president’s suggestion is offensive because it’s built on the discriminatory premise that people who suffer from mental illness are inherently more violent than the rest of us. Time and time again, research has proven this to be false.

What we do know to be fact is that people with mental illness are more likely to be victims rather than perpetrators of violent crime.

It’s misguided for several reasons, the main one being that perpetrators of mass murder generally do not suffer from the kinds of psychiatric illnesses that would make them candidates for involuntary commitment to a psychiatric facility.

At the same time, the president’s reliance on stigmatizing language such as “sickos” only perpetuates the misguided myths that portray people with mental illnesses as more violent than the average person.

Rather, we should be mindful of the fact that one in four Americans suffers from a mental-health issue.

And we ought to take pride in the work we’ve done over the past 50 years to lift the veil of stigma and view those with mental illness as the people they truly are — our friends, our family members, our colleagues, and our fellow citizens.

* * *

No doubt, some of the individuals who have committed mass murder in the past 10 years likely suffered from some form of diagnosable mental illness such as psychosis or clinical depression.

But for the most part, we’re talking about people with no known psychiatric complaints who were able to carry out horrific acts with great forethought and a good deal of planning.

The only factor they all had in common was access to military-style assault weapons that are designed for the specific purpose of killing scores of people in short amounts of time.

Again, I will be the first to agree that we need to do much more in our society to address the pain and suffering that accompany mental illness and addiction.

But we will never put an end to mass shootings by hanging the problem around the necks of the mentally ill.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #449 (Wednesday, March 7, 2018). This story appeared on page E1.

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