During a Senate hearing on gun violence prevention on Wednesday, Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) issued a stark warning: don’t stigmatize Americans suffering from mental illnesses.
Since December’s mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, lawmakers have been engaged in a debate over the best ways to curb gun violence. Much of that debate has centered on America’s expensive and inaccessible mental health care system, since several perpetrators of mass shootings in recent years have also had mental illnesses. But the conversation has veered wildly off-course — stigmatizing Americans suffering from mental disorders as dangerous, and turning them into the scapegoats for gun violence, as the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre did during his bizarre press conference in reaction to the tragedy at Sandy Hook.
At today’s hearing, Franken tried to stop that train of thinking in its tracks. The senator acknowledged the need for a stronger mental health safety net while also pointing out that Americans with mental illness are not actually prone to violence:
FRANKEN: I have supported funding for law enforcement programs and I work every day to carry out the work Paul Wellstone does to repair our mental health system. Tomorrow I will introduce the Mental Health In Schools Act, which will improve access to mental health care for kids. Catching these issues at an early age is really important. I want to be careful here — that we don’t stigmatize mental illness. The vast majority of people with mental illness are no more violent than the rest of the population. In fact, they are more likely to be the victims of violence. These recent events have caused us as a nation to scrutinize our failed mental health care system and I’m glad we’re talking about this in a serious way.
The statistics clearly support Franken’s argument — over 92 percent of Americans with mental disorders do not engage in violent behavior. The ones who do tend to be violent towards themselves.
That’s also why mental health professionals are concerned that some of the mental health reporting provisions in new gun safety laws — such as the one recently signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) — might discourage patients from seeking care or being honest with their doctors about violent thoughts for fear of being reported to the authorities. Such measures add even more stigma to a public health crisis that is already widely stigmatized in America. According to the latest data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), over 29 percent of Americans who do not receive mental health care cite social stigma or the fear of being institutionalized as the main barrier to their care.