Are gun violence and mental illness actually related?

After every mass shooting or act of violence, there is almost always a call for easier access to mental health care and a change in gun policy. While improving gun laws is always an honorable endeavor and mental healthcare is paramount, how big of a roll does mental health actually play in acts of violence?

When asked, almost 64 percent of respondents to a national survey said that those with a mental illness were likely to be more dangerous than others. But is this fact or merely fiction?

Dr. Jeffery Swanson looked at more than 10,000 individuals (both mentally ill and healthy) over the course of a year. In his study, Swanson found that if you take all of the reported incidents of violence, which can range from something as minor as shoving to armed assault, mental illness only accounts for four percent of cases.

The most predictive elements of violence are whether someone is male, poor, and abusing either drugs or alcohol. If someone fit all three categories, their risk of violence was high regardless of a history of mental illness. While mental illness does play a role, it is so minute that if it were to be the focus of any preemptive laws, they would most likely affect very little. It would be similar to only vaccinating four percent of a population. While the four percent is fixed, what about the other ninety-six?

Dr. Swanson repeated the study by tracking 800 people who were being treated for the most severe forms of mental illness over the span of a year. Thirteen percent of those committed a violent act. However, this 13 percent was dependent on whether they were unemployed, poor, living in disadvantaged communities, using drugs or alcohol, and had suffered from “violent victimization” during a part of their lives. If all of the factors are taken away, the risk drops to two percent, which is the same risk of the general population. So how can mental illness still be seen as a “major contributor” to violence?

There is only one exception to the data: mental illness increases the risk of gun violence with the relation to suicide. Between twenty-one and forty-four percent of those who commit suicide have previously had mental health problems. But when it comes to other gun related fatalities, the link is very small and far from predictive.

Past violent behavior is a better indicator of future violence than mental health ever will be and should be the focus for preventative laws. So why do we keep electing officials who ignore this sound research and continue to use those with mental illnesses as a scapegoat for their inability to curb gun violence rate? And when will we treat those with a mental illness with the dignity and respect they deserve?

Meredith Paisant