Gun Violence Prevention: Mental Health is Not a “Silver Bullet”

Everyone in America, if not in the rest of the world, has heard about the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.  Unfortunately, this is not the first school shooting to have occurred in the US—and, sadly enough, it will probably not be the last.  For instance, the other day, my mom called me from Atlanta to tell me that a 14-year-old boy in had been shot in the back of the neck by a fellow student. 

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When violent behavior and guns mix there are usually three reactions: 1) communities and politicians call for gun control; 2) the NRA and its supporters rally; and, 3) the nation focuses its attention on the mental health status of the country.  As a public health student, I certainly understand that mental illness is a pressing public health issue, and I support ensuring high quality mental health services and equal access for all.

Recently, while reading articles about the Sandy Hook tragedy, I came across a provocative perspective on the connection between mental illness and gun violence (Friedman, 2012).  The article suggests, that while serious mental illness is associated with violence, alcohol and drug abuse are significantly more likely to be associated with such behavior.  Even people who are predisposed towards violence as a result of risk factors will not necessarily grow up to be murderers; in fact, seemingly “normal” people commit the majority of homicides (2012).

Nevertheless, we may wish to pay closer attention to improving mental health, and not be distracted by the issue of gun violence, per say.  If we continue to dramatize the relationship between mental illness and gun violence, we will make it less likely for people to seek out help (2012).  For example, framing Adam Lanza as “mentally disturbed” could discourage people experiencing mental health issues from seeking treatment.

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Public opinion findings after the Sandy Hook school shooting show that there is high support among Americans both for reducing gun violence and for increasing government spending on mental health treatment as a way to decrease this public health problem.  If so, then we must carefully act to prevent gun violence while, among factors, minimizing the reluctance to seek treatment.

While not distracting us from reassessing our gun laws and control efforts, tragic incidents like Sandy Hook must remind us of the importance of clinical and public health mental health programs.  We should take advantage of the public’s preparedness to support improving mental health screening and treatment, both of which seem to be low priority as national public health concerns.