Mental illness should not be a scapegoat for violence

By Matthew Thomson - Staff Reporter

Attempts to dismiss the mass shootings in the United States as a mental health problem and not a gun issue is unfairly stigmatizing the mentally ill, two mental health advocates told a Highline audience recently.

A frequent refrain following the increasingly frequent mass shootings has been to link the perpetrators to the mentally ill.

This argument has increasingly been advanced by gun advocates to counter calls for gun control and has been perpetuated in media coverage of mass shooting incidents.

Duke University psychiatry professor Jeffrey Swanson recently told the National Alliance on Mental Illness that re- searchers of mental illness have a "strong responsibility" to try and debunk the mental illness/ gun violence myth.

"Mental illness is not a very big part of the problem of gun violence in the United States," Swanson said.

According to NAMI, 96 percent of the violence in America has nothing to do with mental illness.

Highline's Access Services invited Darya Farivar and David Lord of Disability Rights Washington to address assertions that gun violence is caused by mental illness.

DRW advocates on behalf of people with mental illness and has three main goals: to humanize a stigmatized group, i.e. people with mental illness; to show that while some people with mental ill- ness are beyond help, the people committing these actions are the exception, not the rule; and to educate that just locking up the mentally ill is not a solution to the problem of gun violence. Treatment, however, may be.

"It is really unusual for someone with mental illness to commit acts of violence, and those that do are the exception, not the rule," Lord said.

"You see a person on the street, maybe they are talking to themselves or to an object and that is the common perception of insanity," he said.

Lord said he realizes that often the average person does not have a great deal of inter- action with the mentally ill and that the few interactions they do have are with the homeless, an already stigmatized and poverty-stricken group.

DRW advocates see this minimal interaction as problematic. While its goal is not to normalize mental illness, it is to humanize those who suffer from it.

DRW also seeks to advocate for the rights of all individuals with disabilities through class action suits and education, Farivar said.

In 2017, DRW sued on be- half of mentally ill people being held in prison. These people were not given competency hearings to establish their ability to stand trial.

The court determined that this violated the civil rights of the individuals and that the state had to provide hearings within 14 days of arrest.

Furthermore, most of the people cited in this suit were arrested for poverty-related crimes: trespassing, minor theft and the like, Lord said.

The way laws are set up, the government cannot restrict access to one group without also restricting access to all other groups, so all groups must be given equal access, he said.

"[It doesn't] make sense to restrict access when someone hasn't demonstrated they are a risk to themselves or oth- ers," Lord said.

DRW won the class action suit against the state of Wash- ington, resulting in more than $50 million in fines to the state.

Despite the growing num- ber of politicians blaming mental illness for the epidem- ic of gun violence, DRW plans to continue to advocate for treatment and recovery for the mentallyill.

What is needed is funding, public support, and education. When the mentally ill recover they can then become productive members of society, Farivar said.

DRW plans to accomplish this by supporting education for people with mental illness, bringing class action suits when appropriate, and educating the public through events like the one held at Highline, Farivar said.

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