Op/Ed

Guest editorial: Gun debate stigmatizes those with mental illness

The two recent mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, have increased the climate of fear and hateful rhetoric in our country, causing social division between people more than ever before. This division has eroded our ability to tolerate differences and embrace the richness of diversity.
There has been a lot of misinformation and focus in the press and by politicians about people living with mental illness committing these kinds of heinous acts. Research indicates that individuals who are most distressed in our society, who are often labeled mentally ill, have had extremely adverse childhood experiences.  But the facts are: people living with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators. They are also more likely to self-harm then harm others (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2017).
The perception being promoted that mental illness may predict these types of occurrences is not supported by the research. In a 2016 scholarly paper, authors M. Varshney. A. Mahapatra, V. Krishnan and colleagues, quoting a meta-analysis by Large et al., wrote, “in order to prevent one stranger homicide, 35,000 patients with schizophrenia judged to be at high risk for violence would need to be detained.”
Also, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, two-thirds of gun deaths in this country are suicides, not violent crime perpetrated by people living with mental illness. In our state, Vermonters are dying by suicide, often using a gun, at a rate far higher than the rest of the country. Older Vermonters, those between the ages of 70 and 74, are especially at risk.
Misleading and uninformed statements about those who commit gun violence create fear and stigma that only contribute to the problem, but let’s deflect from the issue of gun violence by creating fear around mental illness.  It’s a disservice to our mothers, fathers, daughters and sons, neighbors, co-workers, and friends who live with mental illness.
Assigning the blame of the two recent, horrific events to mental illness creates a false narrative and is an easy out for politicians and policymakers. Gun violence is not a mental health crisis. Gun violence is a public health crisis.  Stigmatizing those living with mental illness accomplishes nothing.  It only serves to scapegoat.  Instead, we must focus on increased access to treatment and supports for people so that when people are ready, there is help. 
At the Counseling Service of Addison County (CSAC), a designated community mental health agency, we work collaboratively with other community and state partners to promote safe, vibrant, inclusive communities. We work to support understanding of the issues surrounding mental illness.
Some of the values that drive our work include:
• Building community and connection through our Resiliency and Community Bridges program.
• Creating person-centered treatment that is inclusive of personal networks through our Open Dialogue project.
• Working to reduce isolation and loneliness to help increase the feeling of belonging and purpose within our community. This translates to affordable housing, food security, and meaningful work while participating in cutting-edge programs and services.
• Focusing on a collaborative approach that encourages personal responsibility and accountability.
• Providing quick access to treatment and care.
We believe inclusive communities are the building blocks in every stratum of our society in order to make a difference in our troubled times.  CSAC will continue to work to increase access to mental health care, reduce stigma, and reduce isolation by building a strong, diverse, and compassionate community. Everyone should have the opportunity to thrive. I think Maya Angelou said it best, “We are more alike, my friend, than we are unalike.”
Rachel Lee Cummings is executive director of the Counseling Service of Addison County, which is part of a network of 16 nonprofit agencies providing mental health, substance use, and intellectual and developmental disability services and supports. 

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