Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

We Are Orlando

Less than two weeks ago, we woke up to news of incomprehensible violence – this time in Orlando, Florida, whose claim to fame used to be theme parks. Now, Orlando will forever be known as the place where the Pulse massacre took place. Around the country – and the world – “We are Orlando” has become the rally cry of millions. Mass shootings are incredibly complex phenomena, defying the simple analysis and problem solving we all crave. Isn’t every person who points a gun at an innocent crowd ‘crazy?’

Here are five considerations when it comes to mental illness and gun violence:

1. Mental illness is not the root cause of gun violence in America. When designer Kenneth Cole put up a billboard over Manhattan’s West Side Highway last year linking gun violence to mental illness, prominent mental health associations struck back with a viral boycott campaign. They saw the billboard as fueling unwarranted and dangerous stigma against people with mental illness. Their reaction was understandable: people with mental illness have been stigmatized for far too long, and the fact is that less than 5% of gun violence is committed by people with mental illness. People with serious mental illness are much more likely to be victims rather than perpetrators of violence.

2. The mental health impact of violent crimes has a long half-life. While these events may be rare, they are lethal for some and they are traumatizing for many others, with the emotional and psychological impact long felt by those exposed to such heinous acts of violence. Yet mental health is not factored into emergency response plans. Patrick Kennedy, former member of the U.S. House of Representatives and current advocate for mental health, has called for a national conversation around creating mental health response teams that are able to quickly respond following traumatic events. According to Kennedy, “The sad truth is that there is no national SWAT team specifically for mental health counseling. There is no FBI for trauma. There is no Homeland Security for PTSD.”

3. Rates of serious mental illness in the US are comparable to other nations, yet the rate of death by gun violence in the US is among the highest of any nation. In making the case for a public health approach to controlling gun violence, Nick Kristof noted that “since 1970, more Americans have died from guns than died in all U.S. wars going back to the American Revolution.” As we saw from the sit-in over gun legislation in Washington in congress this past week, the politics around this issue have led to polarization and reductionist thinking at the expense of making headway in understanding the violence that permeates our society.

4. The crazy part of the story is that the US has no dedicated funding for the study of gun violence. In 1996, with the Dickey Amendment, Congress banned the Center for Disease Control from funding gun violence studies after the NRA accused the organization of promoting gun control. What could be crazier than that? Even after the ban was lifted in 2012 (post-Sandy Hook) we are still slogging it out in Washington. Congress has yet to authorize any specific funding for research in this area; obviously policy cannot be informed by research if the research does not exist.

5. Beyond Stalemate. There is no doubt that something is seriously wrong with an individual who opens fire on school children, movie goers, and friends gathering for a drink. There is something seriously wrong with the fact that more than 100 mass shootings have occurred in the US in the past 12 months. And there is something seriously wrong with the fact that we have more people with mental illness incarcerated as criminals than hospitalized as patients within our state inpatient mental health systems. Events like Columbine, Aurora, Charleston, Sandy Hook, Newtown, Lafayette, Roseburg, and now Orlando excite national attention as news events, but we need to rally commitment and staying power to a national agenda that truly takes on the complex issues that contribute to and result from the rampant gun violence in America. This includes an examination of how we address mental illness in our society, but only as part of a more complex examination of issues.

I was taught that tragedy is when something that is inhumane and obscene is treated as routine. “We are Orlando” and we have a tragedy on our hands.

Picture of Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University.

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