Politicians, Media and Mental Illness Stigma: Part One

Political theater, gun control, and misconceptions

Since the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, FL, on February 14, we’ve heard a lot of familiar talking points. “Thoughts and prayers,” “more gun control,” “a criminal will still get a gun even if it’s illegal,” “ban all assault rifles,” and so on. Chief among these talking points has been that the Parkland shooting is a “mental health issue.” That the reason the shooter decided to go into a school and kill 17 people was that he was mentally ill (or “disturbed,” as President Trump said in a February 13th tweet.).

Trump also repeatedly referred to the shooter as a “sicko,” suggesting that he should have been put into a mental institution because he couldn’t be put “in jail because he hadn’t done anything yet, but you know he’s going to do something.” He also referred to “these people” (those with mental illness) as being “very dangerous,” stating that we need “to be talking seriously about opening mental health institutions again.”

The Governor of Florida, Rick Scott, struck a similar tone: “Keeping guns away from dangerous people and people with mental issues is what we need to do.” He continued, “No one with mental issues should have access to guns. It’s common sense, and it is in their own best interest — not to mention the interests of our communities.”

Scott also introduced, as one aspect of his response to the shooting, the idea to “create the ‘Violent Threat Restraining Order’ which will allow a court to prohibit a violent or mentally ill person from purchasing or possessing a firearm or any other weapon when either a family member, community welfare expert or law enforcement officer files a sworn request and presents evidence to the court of a threat of violence involving firearms or other weapons. There would be a speedy due process for the accused and any fraudulent or false statements would face criminal penalties.”


So, are those with mental illness prone to violence?

Let’s take a look at some statistics. Most estimates we’ve seen suggest that around 1 in 4 or 1 in 5 Americans have a mental illness. This means 20-25% of the country, or 65-81 million people (as of 2016). Yet, a 1998 study showed that those with mental illness are no more likely to commit acts of violence as the next person in their community. In this study, the indicator toward “prevalence of violence” was substance abuse and dual diagnosis. When someone is diagnosed with dual diagnosis, that means that substance abuse coexists with mental illness. Substance abuse exacerbates the symptoms of mental illness and can be substantially more difficult to treat.

People with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence. As S.E. Smith pointed out in this article in The Nation, people with mental illnesses are more likely to use a gun to commit suicide than kill other people.

Emma E. McGinty, an assistant professor in the departments of Health Policy and Management and Mental Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health puts it like this:

“Anyone who kills people is not mentally healthy. We can all agree on that. But it’s not necessarily true that they have a diagnosable illness. They may have anger or emotional issues, which can be clinically separate from a diagnosis of mental illness. Violence may stem from alcohol or drug use, issues related to poverty or childhood abuse. But these elements are rarely discussed. And as a result, coverage is skewed toward assuming mental illness first.”


Mental health and gun control are different topics

Now that we’ve addressed the mental illness and violence topic, let’s turn to the topic of keeping guns “out of the hands” of the “severely mentally ill.” Before President Obama left office, he implemented a set of rules known as the “Implementation of the NICS Improvement Amendments Act of 2007.” While these rules were never implemented because Congress and President Trump rolled them back almost immediately, there are Democrats who have used the reversal of the rules as a point of criticism toward Republicans. Similarly, media figures have also used this repeal to criticize Trump, specifically in the past few weeks.

The Benjamin Dixon Show |  Original airdate Feb. 18. 2017       

Based on these rules, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) would have included a regularly updated list of people who are receiving disability due to “mental impairment”. The rules would have put a person’s name in a registry if they met all five of the listed criteriaSo, if a person who met the criteria went to buy a gun and the background check showed they were on this list, they would not have been allowed to purchase the gun. These rules would have allowed the individuals placed on the registry to appeal their case to allow for removal.


We oppose this rule because it advances and reinforces the harmful stereotype that people with mental disabilities, a vast and diverse group of citizens, are violent. There is no data to support a connection between the need for a representative payee to manage one’s Social Security disability benefits and a propensity toward gun violence. The rule further demonstrates the damaging phenomenon of ‘spread,’ or the perception that a disabled individual with one area of impairment automatically has additional, negative and unrelated attributes. – The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), in a letter written to Congress supporting the repeal of the Implementation of the NICS Improvement Amendments Act of 2007.  

Mass shootings by people that have mental illness account for around 1% of all yearly related gun homicides. Yet, a study conducted from 1997 to 2012 that analyzed the content of random sample news stories from 14 national and regional sources found “dangerous people” with serious mental illness was discussed in most of these media outlets as an underlying cause of mass shootings. Like this study, multiple studies have come to similar conclusions about the harm this kind of media coverage has on the way society sees people with serious mental illness.

Evidence is clear that the large majority of people with mental disorders do not engage in violence against others, and that most violent behavior is due to factors other than mental illness. However, psychiatric disorders, such as depression, are strongly implicated in suicide, which accounts for more than half of gun fatalities. An emphasis on time-sensitive risk for violence or suicide, as the foundation of evidence-based criteria for prohibiting firearms access, would be a more productive policy approach to prevent gun violence than focusing broadly on mental illness diagnoses and a record of involuntary psychiatric hospitalization at any time in one’s life. – Mental illness and reduction of gun violence and suicide: bringing epidemiologic research to policy; Swanson et al. 2015.



As illustrated above, people with mental illness are not inherently more violent than anyone else. Yet, media and politicians alike continually imply or state that they are. These comments serve to further stigmatize those with mental illness, planting the idea in our society that they are inherently violent and dangerous individuals. Furthermore, this creates a feedback loop where society looks at a mass shooting and has a knee-jerk reaction to immediately assume the shooter had a mental illness, before any information about the shooter is truly known.

You can see examples of problematic quotes from President Trump and Governor Scott above. One of the clearest examples is the wording “prohibit a violent or mentally ill person” in Governor Scott’s proposed “Violent Threat Restraining Order,” which can easily be interpreted to mean that those with mental illnesses are inherently violent.

Now, we are seeing language from both political parties that further the narrative that people with mental illness are dangerous. There has been a very long, global history of such narratives and beliefs that have done lasting damage throughout time that continues to affect the lives of people with mental health conditions, as we will discuss in Part Two.

Written by Raven Payne

Recently awakened progressive in pursuit of truth in all things.

Raven Payne is an Editor and Writer for Progressive Army, and a member of its Editorial Board.

Written by Jami Miller

Jami is a 37-year-old mother, who is open about her struggles with chronic mental health issues. In May of 2017, Jami signed the Pro Truth Pledge.

Jami Miller is an Editor of Progressive Army and a member of its Editorial Board.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

One Less

Politicians, Media and Mental Illness Stigma: Part One