I cringe not just for the obvious reasons of the carnage of victims’ bodies and grieving family members. I know that almost all the talking heads, long before we know any of the facts, will begin making the association between mental illness and horrific gun violence. Perpetrators will be called wackos, loonies, psychos, and crazies. Such portrayals are not likely to get money streaming in to help prevent such acts by getting persons with such labels help before they act.
Social media extortions are just as bad, if not worse. I recently posted on Facebook, in the last decade we have reliable statistics for (2004 – 2013), that there were 316,545 deaths by firearms on American soil and 313 U.S. deaths by terrorism here (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. State Department). Along the thread-line of responses, I received this from one of my “friends.” He provided me with a pie chart from “unclesamsmisguidedchildren.com.” After identifying the topic “causes of mass shootings,” and offering several possibilities for explanations, i.e. “law abiding gun owners,” “guns,” “high capacity magazines,” “assault weapons,” and “mentally disturbed people who don’t care about gun laws,” the pie chart consisted of one whole piece of pie. The conclusion was that the causes of all mass shootings were the result of the latter category.
Admittedly, we need to do a much better job of linking persons with mental illnesses to treatment, but we know from research that most persons with mental illnesses are not violent. In fact, they are more likely to be victims of violent acts. The best predictors of violence are past violence and abuse of substances. Of course, those two options were not potential ingredients for the pie chart offered up by my “friend.” We make our undergraduate students take statistics and research methods, and they often moan about it. But, hopefully they won’t be bolstering their arguments on questionable pie charts with no indication of supporting data that are accepted by some lock, stock, and barrel. Uh-oh, we can’t mention guns.
Mark Twain once said, “We’re all ignorant, just about different things.” Otto Wahl has written extensively about how persons with mental illnesses are stigmatized in the media. Also, a former surgeon general has indicated that the number one inhibitor to persons with mental illnesses receiving adequate treatment within our society is stigma. For the past two-years, through Katti Gray and John Jay’s College of Criminal Justice, I have been working with journalists around the country to enhance their awareness of how their reporting impacts the perspectives of their readers and viewers. The media has had a tendency to report on the planes that don’t fly; I encourage them to report on the multitudes of planes (persons with mental illnesses) that function successfully every day.
Risdon N. Slate, Ph.D.
Chair and Professor of Criminology
Florida Southern College
Lead author of the Criminalization of Mental Illness: Crisis and Opportunity for the Justice System, 2nd ed. Carolina Academic Press with Jacki Buffington-Vollum and Wes Johnson.