Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Mental health and gun violence

As a lawyer with a physical disability who also has experienced depression, I’m disappointed at the tenor of how our society discusses a disease of millions of Americans – mental illness.

Each tragic occurrence of a mass shooting results in the specter of mental health disability blamed as a factor. Most people both with physical and invisible disabilities, however, are doing their best merely to exist much less to thrive. It does these citizens a profound disservice to equate them as the problem to be solved through catchy-sounding legislation.

Explore this following fictitious scenario. John Doe has an invisible disability, one caused by mental illness. He purchases a firearm legally. If one accepts the current public dialogue on mental illness to be correct, he will commit a crime. Yet this presumption exists merely by him exercising what the U.S. Supreme Court, in District of Columbia v. Heller, interpreted and held as a constitutional right.

The truth is this: Our communities have increasingly regressed into violent places with people of all sects, countries, and opinions (including those with invisible disabilities) falling victim. In most of these cases, causes of the violence are not only complicated but not necessarily correlated to John Doe forgetting to renew his medical health prescription or failing to comply with his treatment protocols.

Many other factors also influence mass shootings. The least of which is hatred of the other, such as those who do not agree with us, do not possess the same skin color, or do not practice the same religion or any religion at all.

Diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility efforts remain critical but also challenging to integrate and sustain. All of us regress into old patterns of acting and thinking. This includes differentiating or stigmatizing those deemed as different or “weird” compared to us.

Let us quickly examine how public media and policy leaders have previously distorted mental illness or mental health disabilities and those others whom society deems to be inferior.

During the 19th century, if a woman fell physically or mentally ill, such as from an underlying gynecological problem, she was especially wronged and in some cases institutionalized because she was “hysterical.” During the 1960s, an advertisement for an antipsychotic medication as well as the FBI itself linked being a person of color – an activist one — with mental illness.

Returning to the present, the governor of Texas recently equated gun violence with mental illness, suggesting that anyone who shoots another person is mentally ill. The governor based his statement on conversations with law enforcement.

Is this correct? His remarks signify one of our current problems related to policymaking, not to mention the distances that we, as a country, have yet to travel in providing equal opportunity for people with visible and invisible disabilities. His statement upsets me, not only from a policy perspective but because he himself has a physical disability.

There is only limited population-level health data to suggest a correlation between mental illness and gun-based crimes. Indeed, some experts argue that people with mental health disabilities are no more likely than those without mental health disabilities to commit these grievous public wrongs. So it seems shameful when public policymakers ignore the many causes of societal problems, engraining bias against vulnerable citizens through the authority of their words.

Consider an alternative and elevated way leaders should leverage language. President Abraham Lincoln wielded the power of an anecdote or a set of remarks with expertise and with erudition. Based on historical research, one may argue that Lincoln had some form of an invisible disability, however his use of language lifted up communities.

In conclusion, it would be helpful if societal conversations related to mental illness evolved. We should focus on how to achieve parity in health care coverage and social services as well as how to integrate those with invisible disabilities into society – not try to marginalize them.

Gary C. Norman, Esq. LL.M. is a past chair of the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights. He can be reached at (410) 241-6745.