The subject of mental health has been grabbing headlines across the nation in recent weeks.
Multiple mass shootings have caused many to blame a lack of attention to those who suffer from severe mental illness. Closer to home, Sarasota County officials have begun to address overcrowding at the jail by considering alternative ways to handle inmates suffering from substance abuse.
It is encouraging to see the energy around seeking solutions that serve both purposes: addressing the jail overcrowding as well as finding more humane ways to serve those faced with mental health challenges.
The shock and pain of mass killings around the nation, including most recently in two Texas cities as well as Dayton, Ohio, have found an outlet in the call for more mental health services. Leaders bemoan the lack of available resources for this underserved population and frequently propose “red flag” legislation — allowing law enforcement to confiscate firearms from people thought to be a danger to themselves or others.
The good part is that this discussion brings much-needed attention to mental health and to the lack of options for those who experience challenges in this regard.
But when much of violent crime, especially the kind of high-profile mass shootings that have plagued this nation in recent years, is blamed on those with mental illness, it perpetuates the view that mentally ill people are responsible for much of the nation’s crime problem.
That view is wrong and contributes to the stigma that those who live with these conditions have long endured.
Understanding mental illness and its ramifications should begin by a look at the numbers.
The National Institutes of Health reported in 2019 that approximately one in five adults in America experiences mental illness in a given year. For one in 25, or 11.2 million people, the illness is considered severe, interfering with their ability to carry on their daily lives in a reasonable way.
Children are not immune. Among those age 13 to 18, more than one in five will experience a severe mental disorder at some point in their lives. It has been estimated that 70 percent of those in the juvenile justice system have at least one mental health condition, and for 20 percent it is considered a serious mental illness.
Too many of these sufferers are going untreated. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports that only about four in 10 adults suffering from mental illnesses receive services to address their condition. For children, the treatment figure is about 50 percent.
These figures suggest the problems of this population are not being sufficiently recognized and addressed. If one result of the recent tragedies connected with gun violence is greater attention paid to treating those suffering from mental illness, that would be a step in the right direction.
But it is important to note that mental illness is not a significant contributing factor to crime in America. To the contrary, the website MentalHealth.gov reports, that a mere 3 percent to 5 percent of violent crime can be attributed to a perpetrator suffering from severe mental illness.
Rather, it is far more common for the mentally ill to be the victims of crime. The American Mental Health Counselors Association reports that rates of violent crime victimization among those suffering from serious mental illness are 12 times higher than among the overall U.S. population.
Those who experience mental health disorders and their families know all too well the negative view society holds when it comes to sufferers. There is discrimination in the workplace and in social settings, particularly when the condition is schizophrenia or the person has experienced a mental health crisis. Fear and misunderstanding drive people away from associating with people they perceive as mentally ill and that discourages a sufferer from seeking treatment.
When mental illness is seen as the cause of violent crime, it just perpetrates the negative stereotypes that have plagued this population for centuries. In some cultures and religious traditions, those suffering from mental illness have been seen as inhabited by evil spirits or receiving punishment for bad behavior.
Even the term "behavioral health" suggests that mental disorders are a choice rather than biological in nature.
Significant strides have been made in the care of those suffering from mental illness in recent years, but much more progress is needed.
And improved access to mental health treatment is not the way to prevent mass shootings. Only limiting the availability of high-powered firearms intended for the battlefield can do that.
Kathy Silverberg is a former publisher of the Herald-Tribune’s southern editions. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @kdsilver