When I was a Wyoming daily newspaper editor in the 1980s, I often saw national wire service stories with headlines like this: “Vietnam Vet Kills Convenience Store Clerk.”
This happened so many times, I became concerned that all veterans of the Vietnam War were unfairly being stereotyped as crazed killers. I knew they weren’t, so unless there was a specific reason to point out a shooter was a Vietnam vet, I took pains to remove it from our headlines.
I have similar concerns today after President Donald Trump called the alleged murderer of 22 people at the recent mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, a “mentally ill monster.”
Many media outlets reported his sensational words as fact, but no politician or journalist is qualified to clinically diagnose someone’s mental health status from afar.
“Hate and mental illness pull triggers, not guns,” Trump said after the El Paso tragedy and another in Dayton, Ohio, less than 24 hours later that claimed nine lives. I thought conservatives believe in taking personal responsibility. Isn’t access to guns and huge amounts of ammunition a pretty important part of the equation in a mass shooting?
Can citing a shooter’s suspected mental illness as an inevitable cause of his heinous acts hurt others who have mental health issues but no history of violence?
“Absolutely. They’re already stigmatized,” said Tabatha Madrigal, director of Recovery Services for Central Wyoming Counseling Center in Casper. “I think it increases the stigma.”
When there is a mass murder and some evidence of mental illness, Madrigal said, it’s publicized more. “When we see these things happen, it’s easier to say, ‘Well, that person was mentally ill, so that would explain it.’ But there’s no evidence that a person with mental illness will act more violently. There’s plenty of people who act violently who are not mentally ill. It’s just spotlighted when it is the case.”
A study released last Tuesday by the National Council for Behavioral Health found that “people with serious mental illness are responsible for less than 4% of all violence and less than one-third of mass violence.”
Several other studies point out that the mentally ill are far more likely to be victims, not perpetrators, of gun violence.
Former FBI profiler Mary Ellen O’Toole, now program director of the Forensic Science Department at George Mason University, told CBS News that Trump is wrong.
“My experience has been that these are individuals that, if there is a mental health issue, they are still able to function very strategically, and in a very cold-blooded and callous manner,” O’Toole said. “So, mental health is not the problem.”
Last week Trump and several congressional Republicans said keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill should be one of the nation’s top priorities. I don’t disagree in cases of severe mental illness, but not because I think they will all turn into mass killers. Many will use guns to commit suicide, not harm others.
But one of the first bills Trump signed into law when he took office in 2017 reversed an executive order by former President Obama that would have tightened gun restrictions on an estimated 75,000 individuals. Under the regulation, which was opposed by the ACLU, the Social Security Administration was required to submit anyone to the federal background check database if they received assistance managing their benefits and also had a mental impairment that limited their ability to work. The Obama rule never went into effect. For the record, Wyoming’s Sens. Mike Enzi and John Barrasso and Rep. Liz Cheney all voted for the measure.
Citing mental illness as a root cause of gun violence is one of the political “flavors of the week” used by Trump to casually sweep away what happened in Texas and Ohio. He also mentioned racial hatred and violent video games.
I accept racial hatred as one motive for the El Paso shooter, since he reportedly told police he wanted to “kill as many Mexicans as I can.” But video games with violent action? They’re played rampantly in Japan, but gun violence there is virtually unheard of.
After every instance of domestic terrorism that has taken place during his administration — often at the hands of white nationalists — Trump has steadfastly blamed mental illness.
When a Las Vegas shooter slaughtered 58 people at a country music concert in October 2017, the president proclaimed, “This isn’t a gun situation. This is a mental health problem at the highest level. It’s a very, very sad event.”
Obviously, guns are the quintessential problem and to ignore that fact is painfully absurd, but we’ll tackle that issue in a future column. Here’s the deal: If Trump is going to pin so much blame on mental illness, he needs to explain why he and the Republican Senate have worked to undermine access to mental health and drug addiction treatment services through their assaults on Medicaid and “Obamacare.”
In Wyoming, the Department of Health was not spared when lower energy prices and production began to impact the state budget, and mental health services funding decreased for three straight years, from 2013-15. Most providers still haven’t recovered from those budget cuts. The State Hospital in Evanston has been overcrowded and the subject of various lawsuits for years, even though it’s statutorily the facility where people who are found by courts to be a danger to their communities must be placed. There are not enough private facilities to handle the overflow, and the ones that exist are expensive.
Many mentally ill individuals wind up in county jails, where few or no services are available. They don’t belong there.
“If I have an illness and I don’t like taking my medications because I don’t have the insight into what they do for me and how they help me, and I stop taking my medication and stop going to my appointments, is that adequate services?” CWCC’s Madrigal asked. “I would say no.”
At the Casper center where she works, Madrigal said professionals go out into the community and check on clients if they don’t show up.
“It’s not an out of sight, out of mind situation,” Madrigal explained. “If there’s no funds to provide that intensity of services for somebody who has more severe illness, funding would make a significant difference if it was utilized to intervene earlier. Let’s go out and get that person before they have a completely full-blown episode and their behavior or thoughts are so far out of line with what their baseline might be, that they may act in ways that they otherwise wouldn’t.”
The Wyoming Legislature has restored some funding to suicide prevention and substance abuse treatment programs, but Title 25 funding for court-ordered involuntary commitments for mentally ill patients at the State Hospital and private facilities is still woefully underfunded.
Madrigal said in the current political climate, many have motives to spin these tragic shootings “a whole bunch of different ways.” Some may want to blame racism; others say mental illness is the root cause. Believe it or not, Mr. President, some of us think unfettered access to guns has something to do with it.
“Let’s see what the facts tell us, and then take action,” Madrigal said. “Because we’re acting out of a really charged response place right now.”
Facts, not unfair stereotyping, are essential if the nation is going to reduce gun violence. President Trump and Senate Republicans need to pay more than lip service to their call to keep guns out of the hands of severely mentally ill people who are a danger to themselves and others.
I think Peter Ambler, executive director of Giffords — a gun control group founded by former Arizona congresswoman and shooting victim Gabby Giffords — nailed it when he told NBC News, “Blaming mental health is a tactic straight out of the gun lobby’s playbook that’s meant to paralyze Congress.”
More money for mental health services isn’t a panacea, but it’s a start. Right-wing politicians need to stop being hypocrites and put adequate funds in the hands of mental health providers on the front lines who these officials claim they want to help. If they don’t pony up, they’re culpable for the next tragedy.