Please Excuse Mr. Trump

October 4, 2015

One of the things I am always nagging my children about is making excuses. “Why can’t you just admit you did something and say you’re sorry”? I moan.  Why do you have to keep making excuses?  Maybe it’s because that’s what they see happening all around them – parents making excuses for bad behavior by their children; one-percenters making excuses for why they should continue to control 99 percent of the country’s wealth; those of us who live in cities making excuses for walking around homeless people.  And politicians making excuses for avoiding the patently obvious issue of the proliferation of guns in our society by blaming recent acts of horrific violence on people with mental illnesses.  Just this morning, speaking in response to the shooting of ten people on a college campus in Oregon, Donald Trump flatly stated, “It’s not a gun problem, it’s a mental illness problem.”[1]

Trump’s statement is not only appallingly simplistic, it’s also false.  I worked in the forensic mental health field for fifteen years and I have read study after study on the relationship between mental illness and violence, and one thing is consistently true: The vast majority of individuals who suffer from severe mental illnesses (such as those that involve symptoms like hallucinations, delusions, and poor reality testing), are not dangerous.[2]  First of all, the vast majority of people who are diagnosed with mental illness do not exhibit severe symptoms like hallucinations or delusions.  Secondly, recent estimates suggest that individuals with severe mental illness constitute only three to five percent of perpetrators of incidents of violence, not all of which involve guns.”[3]

The truth is, the relationship between mental illness and violence is complex – and people with a great deal more expertise than Mr. Trump have been attempting to sort through it and make responsible recommendations for militating against incidents like the tragedy which occurred in Oregon last week.  A 2015 literature review identified four broadly held misconceptions about the relationship between mental illness and gun violence: first, that mental illness causes gun violence; second, that you can predict gun violence based on psychiatric diagnosis; third, that we need to be afraid of “loners,” in our communities, and fourth, that gun control will not prevent mass shootings.[4]  Like previous researchers, the authors found that individuals with mental illness are responsible for less than five percent of reported crimes and have lower rates of gun-related violence than non-mentally ill populations.  They also reiterated that one of the problems with making any kind of statements about the perpetrators of mass shootings is that there are (comparatively) few of them.  Although they tend to receive the most publicity, mass shootings constitute a small percentage (i.e., – less than one percent) of gun violence.[5]

The slogan, “Guns don’t kill people; (mentally ill) people do” is not only naive but inaccurate.  As someone who has heard many, many stories from both victims and perpetrators of violent behavior I can tell you from experience that guns do kill people – because, frankly, it’s a lot easier to kill someone with a gun than by stabbing or strangling them.  Yes, if someone wants to hurt someone else badly enough they will find a way, but to fatally injure someone without a gun requires unusual strength or significant amounts of time.  Killing someone with a gun can happen quickly, accidentally, and requires no planning, power, or expertise.

That’s why violence assessment is so difficult.  The bottom line is that the best predictor of future violence is past violence – but everyone has a first time.  Sometimes (as is the case with many of the more well-known mass shootings of recent years) an individual’s first act of violence is their only act of violence – but one that inflicts maximal suffering to its victims.  Psychologists no longer even claim to “predict” violence – only “assess dangerousness” – and that poorly.  Human beings are unpredictable and the few factors that are consistently associated with violence – like male gender and substance abuse – apply to many people who have never been violent.

The truth is that mentally ill individuals are far more likely to be the victims than the perpetrators of violence[6] – and mentally ill individuals that do commit crimes are often involved in troubled domestic relationships, with substance abuse further complicating matters.[7]  Statements by public figures such as Mr. Trump suggesting that perpetrators of mass shootings are, “just sick people.  They’re mentally imbalanced,” do nothing but stigmatize people with mental illness, making them feel more isolated than they already do.  Which leads to the most statistically robust relationship between guns and mental illness: suicide.  Research indicates that by far the most preferred method of suicide in the United States is the use of a gun.[8]  This means that the subgroup of individuals with mental illness most likely to use guns in a violent crime is people with depression – who use them on themselves. 

And in terms of mortality rates suicide is at least as big a concern as violent crime.  A whopping one in ten Americans use antidepressants and, according to the Centers for Disease Control, more than sixteen million Americans suffer from depression.  Put bluntly, you have a much higher statistical likelihood of killing yourself with a gun than being shot in a mass shooting.

Mr. Trump’s statements, which stigmatize mentally ill people and glorify gun ownership as a protective factor against violence, have no basis in fact.  They are excuses.  Blaming a small group of individuals for acts which are symptomatic of a broken society is not an answer.  It is a failure to take responsibility for the real ills that lead to such acts: alienation of people from one another, allowing a few individuals – generally individuals who know nothing of the suffering brought on by social violence – to control the conversation about it; and focusing on issues that divide rather than unite people.  Perhaps Mr. Trump and his ilk should spend more time trying to care for those who are mentally ill, isolated, and powerless rather than focusing on increasing their own individual power.  Of course, statistically, Mr. Trump may just be diverting attention from the fact that he belongs to a subgroup of the population that is more likely to commit violent crimes.  He’s male.  Or maybe that’s just an excuse.

[1]http://www.nbcnews.com/meet-the-press/trump-mental-illness-not-guns-blame-americas-mass-shooting-problem-n437901.

[2] Liza Gold, “Gun Violence: Psychiatry, Risk Assessment, and Social Policy,” Journal of the American Academy of Psychology and the Law, 41:3:337-343 (September 2013).

[3]Ibid.

[4]Jonathan Metzl and Kevin MacLeish, “Mental Illness, Mass Shootings, and the Politics of American Firearms,” American Journal of Public Health. 2015 February; 105(2): 240–249.

[5]Ibid.

[6]Ibid.

[7] Liza Gold, “Gun Violence: Psychiatry, Risk Assessment, and Social Policy,” Journal of the American Academy of Psychology and the Law, 41:3:337-343 (September 2013).

[8]Ibid.

2 thoughts on “Please Excuse Mr. Trump

  1. Deb, that is right on.most of the candidates (notice I did not say morons) totally simplify . Perhaps , in the case of DT, that is all he can get out of his “big brain” that he is so fond of telling everyone.

Leave a Reply