The solution to mass shootings has nothing to do with mental illness

The solution to mass shootings has nothing to do with mental illness
© Greg Nash

I was a second year medical student when the massacre at Sandy Hook happened just miles away, when I was home visiting family. I remember the heartbreak and anger so intense that I can feel it to this day, even knowing that it was never truly mine to feel next to the unimaginable grief of such horrific and senseless loss of life. 

Through the collective pain and talks of action, I had the distinct thought that no civilized society would ever tolerate the mass murder of its children in their own schools and that this would be the final turning point in our commitment to ending the plague of gun violence in our nation.

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Five years later, now completing my training as a pediatrician, I spend my career caring for children and working every day to assure their health and longevity. And yet, there is only so much I can do. After too many subsequent mass shootings and no meaningful change, my patients, their families and my own family remain in danger.

We hear again and again calls for reasonable gun policy reform and “mental illness” uttered in the same breath. This apparent advocacy for improving mental health care seems fair- even though it has been clearly demonstrated, in countries such as Australia and Japan, that creating sensible gun laws is the only proven way to eliminate mass shootings and decrease gun violence- why not also work to solve the mental health crisis at the same time? 

What those who agree to mental health reform when it is proposed as a means of preventing mass shooting do not understand is how incredibly dangerous this tactic is. While well-intentioned, allowing for these topics to be discussed together is based on a series of problematic assumptions and leads to equally problematic results. 

First and foremost, there is minimal correlation between treatable mental illness and violent crime. In a study of 235 mass shootings, only twenty-two percent of the perpetrators could be diagnosed as having any degree of mental illness, with no proven correlation between this diagnosis and the horrific crime committed. 

Furthermore, less than one percent of gun homicides overall are committed by people with serious mental illness and there does not seem to be a higher rate of mental health issues in the United States compared to other nations, where rates of gun violence and mass shootings are exceedingly lower.

What is true, rather, is that grouping-suffering individuals with mental health concerns, already stigmatized by society and with poor access to care, with antisocial mass murderers only creates further stigma. Most important to note is that after years of commitment to improving “mental health” spouted by legislators after each mass shooting, there has been no real change to our health-care system or increase in access, with the majority of those with mental health issues not receiving treatment and for those actively seeking help, 1 in 5 still unable to obtain it . It is apparent, then, that the cry for mental health access is a calculated distraction to replace a proven solution with an unrelated issue. 

When humanists, activists and especially physicians accept the false relationship between mental health and mass shootings, they perpetuate a lie that does a disservice to both causes. We, as doctors, must lead the way in rejecting this deception and promoting meaningful change on our own terms.

This is a public health crisis that extends well past the realm of the political and in which every doctor must have a voice. As physicians, we must encourage all citizens who are angry, heartbroken, afraid and caught in a cycle of never-ending grief to see past the “mental illness” ruse and demand that our media and politicians address the real causes of and solutions to horrific and preventable mass shootings.

Rebekah Diamond M.D. is a pediatrician at Columbia University and New York Presbyterian. The views expressed here are entirely her own and do not necessarily reflect those of her affiliated institutions.