Paul Gibbs: Blaming violence on the mentally ill wrongly increases its stigma

The mentally ill are more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah muralist and mosaicist Roger Whiting and Herriman High School student Mati Simonds discuss the artwork of the new mural dedicated to mental health awareness located at 3091 South 2700 West in West Valley City, Mar. 16, 2021.

Despite having spent the last several years as a health care activist talking a great deal about my own health problems, I don’t enjoy doing it. It’s an uncomfortable and very personal subject, and it opens me up to being judged, sometimes rather harshly.

This is especially true of mental illness. I speak far less frequently of my personal struggles with depression and anxiety/panic disorder than of my physical illnesses, and even writing this is difficult because I know it will negatively impact how I am viewed by some people. But that’s why it’s so important to talk about mental illness, especially as it’s now being pushed into the spotlight due to horrific acts of gun violence.

As we address the causes and potential responses to these unspeakable acts, there are those who want to push discussion away from gun control or extremist ideology to mental illness. While I freely admit that I abhor guns, I also acknowledge that this problem must be addressed from a variety of angles. I also acknowledge that constitutional rights are an important part of the equation.

But I am concerned that much of the talk about mental illness is more about misdirection than dealing with the problem. And I worry greatly that the added stigma of connecting those of us who suffer from mental illness to the perpetrators of mass murder will further harm and marginalize people who are already misunderstood, feared, and judged.

Research sited by mentalhealth.gov shows that the vast majority of those of us with a mental illness are no more likely to be violent than anyone else. In fact, only 3-5% of violent acts can be attributed to people with mental illness. But we’re 10 times more likely to be victims of violence than is the general population. And Cambridge University finds that one of the biggest barriers to accessing mental health care is stigmatization and fear of discrimination. In other words, even if we increase access to mental health care to combat violence, we add to the barrier against that care by promoting the narrative that mental illness is likely related to violent acts. The harsher the stigma against mental illness, the more reluctant we are to admit that we need help.

After decades of dealing with depression and anxiety, I still struggle to accept or admit to my problems because I don’t want them to be part of my self-image. But I have come to realize that mental illness is not weakness, and that seeking help requires strength.

I strongly support increasing access to mental health care. But it’s vital that as we do so, we avoid making the mentally ill a politically convenient scapegoat. I can’t help noticing that when mass shootings arise, mental health suddenly becomes an important topic among those who show little concern for the issue during debates on subjects like expansion of Medicaid or protecting pre-existing conditions. Essentially, those who have supported taking coverage away from millions of people have little credibility when it comes to dealing with mental health issues.

Chances are everyone who reads this knows and cares about someone who suffers from mental illness. We’re your friends, family members and neighbors. And we’re no more prone to violence than anyone else. Please don’t make us the villains or connect us to terrible acts. Don’t make it harder for us to accept the reality of our illness. And don’t use us as a political football because you don’t want to talk about guns.

(Photo courtesy of Paul Gibbs) | Paul Gibbs and his 3-year-old son, Timothy, at the Rally Against Repeal on the first day of the 2019 legislative session at the Utah State Capitol

Paul Gibbs is an independent filmmaker, kidney transplant recipient and health care activist who would never hurt anyone. He lives in West Valley City with his wife and his two sons, who they are teaching to solve problems non-violently.