Linking gun violence to mental illness can perpetuate harmful stigmas, mental health advocates say

Jennifer Spangler was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1997.

Like most people living with a mental illness, the Chesterfield County resident said she isn’t violent.

But anytime there’s a spike in gun violence or a high profile shooting, she braces herself, knowing many politicians will zero in on mental health. The quick pivot in search of a solution, she says, can conflate gun violence and mental illness and perpetuate harmful stigmas about the estimated 57.8 million adults in the United States who have a mental illness.

“I do believe legislators have our best interest in mind, but it’s still harmful,” Spangler said.

Amid rising gun violence in Virginia, some legislators have asserted that gun violence is a mental health issue and proposed more resources as a solution. Mental health advocates agree there’s a need for more support, and that mental disorders are a factor in some situations. But they argue it’s not the norm and that consistent conversations linking mental illness to gun violence can cause the public to fear those with mental illnesses.

“The effects of those types of prejudices are devastating,” said Spangler, a member of the board of directors for Vocal Virginia, a statewide mental health advocacy organization.

Jen Williams, a board of directors member for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Coastal Virginia, agreed that this is a serious concern.

“It really causes people to be fearful of sharing their diagnosis with anyone, which leads to self isolating and a reluctance to seek treatment because you don’t want anyone to know that you are different,” she said.

Williams said lawmakers — and the media — need to be more careful about how they portray mental illness.

“The fallacy about mental illness linking to gun violence is this: There are lots of other countries in the world, like Britain and Canada, that have lower incidents of crimes involving guns and yet they still have (mental illness), so why is that?” she asked.

Gun violence has been brought to the forefront of many political discussions in Virginia following two recent mass shootings — one at a Chesapeake Walmart and another at the University of Virginia — as well as incidents of gun violence among minors and an uptick in overall gun homicides.

When asked about gun violence solutions during a live town hall on CNN this month, Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin touted his “Right Help, Right Now” initiative. The plan, which has support from both sides of the aisle, would invest $230 million to bolster mental and behavioral health.

Attorney General Jason Miyares, a Republican, subsequently also asserted that gun violence couldn’t be addressed without addressing mental health.

Spangler said many legislators on both sides of the aisle have long linked gun violence to mental health. But the recent comments from top Virginia lawmakers renewed her concern about the framing of the issue.

Youngkin spokesperson Macaulay Porter said in an email that the governor was committed to fighting stigmas and supporting those with mental health issues.

“Sadly, many instances of violence or self-harm do involve some acute experience of mental distress and despair, particularly mass shootings,” she wrote. “Mental despair is a serious growing issue that leads to crises.”

Miyares spokesperson Victoria LaCivita said the attorney general recognizes that there is no one solution to gun violence and supports a multi-faceted approach.

“At the same time, it is important to recognize that increased access to mental health programs would help struggling Virginians and mitigate the risk of gun violence,” she wrote in an email. “Hundreds of thousands of Virginians struggle with mental health.”

The Virginia Department of Health recorded 457 gun homicides statewide in 2020, 508 in 2021 and 555 in a preliminary count for 2022.

It’s unclear how many of those shooters had a mental health disorder. Lauren Yerkes, a violence prevention senior epidemiologist with the health department, said the agency does not track data on the mental health status of the shooters.

Rebecca Cowan, founder of Anchor Counseling and Wellness in Virginia Beach, said individuals with mental health issues are more likely to become victims of violence than perpetrators.

Cowan is an adjunct associate professor for the Department of Counseling and Human Services at Old Dominion University who has research expertise in trauma and mass casualty disasters. She previously served on a state commission investigating the 2019 mass shooting at the Virginia Beach Municipal Center.

“Research does not support the claim that mental illness leads to violent behavior, and perpetuating this harmful stereotype stigmatizes individuals with mental health issues,” she wrote to The Virginian-Pilot.

She pointed to statistics from the National Center for Health Statistics, which showed that less than 5% of the 120,000 gun-related killings in the United States between 2001 and 2010 were committed by someone with a diagnosed mental illness.

But it’s a complex issue that needs a nuanced discussion, she explained. She said research has identified a connection between trauma exposure and gun violence, especially when trauma occurs in childhood.

“Mental health treatment can play a significant role in mitigating the effects of trauma,” she wrote. “However, it is essential to acknowledge that only a small percentage of those who have experienced trauma will ever become violent.”

Katie King,