On the most recent episode of “Last Week Tonight,” John Oliver pointed out how foolish it is to blame gun violence on mental illness — and then deftly pivoted into a discussion on how desperately we need better mental healthcare in this country.
His most striking stat, which comes from a study that cited the National Center for Health Statistics, is that of the 120,000 gun-related deaths between 2001 to 2010 in the US, fewer than 5% were caused by people with mental illness.
Mental illness takes hold of almost one in five American adults. In 2013, nearly 44 million adults were diagnosed with a mental illness, including 10 million with a serious mental illness, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
Even though people with mental illness are everywhere, they are not responsible for an even marginally significant percentage of gun-related deaths.
Yet politicians consistently point to this country’s mental health problem as the driving cause behind gun violence and mass shootings.”Oliver played clips of presidential candidates Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Mike Huckabee saying just that before launching into a tirade explaining why they are so incredibly wrong.
Mentally ill people are the wrong scapegoat
Most of the time, mental healthcare isn’t much of a political talking point.
But there’s “nothing like a mass shooting to suddenly spark political interest in mental health,” Oliver said. “Although it’s worth noting that Gov. Huckabee’s state [Arkansas] got a grade of D- on mental health care while he was in office. And you can’t lecture people on something you got a D- in.”
The period immediately after a mass shooting is not when we should be discussing mental illness, Oliver said, though politicians frequently do so to avoid talking about gun control.
“For the record, the vast majority of mentally ill people are non-violent, and the vast majority of gun violence is committed by non-mentally ill people,” he said. “In fact, mentally ill people are far likelier to be the victims of violence rather than the perpetrators.”
Oliver was citing a recent study in the Annals of Epidemiology that looked at how the media’s portrayal of the connection between gun violence and mental illness is completely overblown. The actual research paints a very different picture.
When it comes to suicides, however, the authors noted that mental health problems often play a large role. Up to 44% of suicide victims have a mental illness. Of the approximately 32,000 gun-related deaths in the US every year, 61% are suicides.
In other words: People with mental illnesses are at risk of harming themselves — not others.
So having a better mental health system could help with gun-related suicides, but it likely couldn’t fix the larger issue of “gun violence” in the US, particularly instances of mass shootings.
The mental healthcare system is broken
To be sure, politicians have every reason to point to problems with the way we treat mental health in this country. But we need solutions that actually help mentally ill people, Oliver argued, not just finger-pointing.
Our mental healthcare system includes 112 programs from eight different federal agencies, Oliver said, plus state interventions. And this massive bureaucratic burden that doesn’t seem to be accomplishing much.
This is especially clear when looking at our largest provider of “mental healthcare:” prisons. More than 2 million people with serious mental illness go to jail every year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Jailing people because we, as a society, can’t adequately address their mental health needs is no way to help. What we need more of, Oliver argued, are programs like Assertive Community Treatment, which provides participants with the psychiatric and psychological help they need, but also assistance with everyday tasks, like paying rent, in order to keep them in the community, living independently. One study even found that these types of programs can pay for themselves.
Another option are Crisis Intervention Teams, which train law enforcement officers to talk to people about their mental health and encourage treatment instead of taking them to jail. In municipalities that have adopted the training, the results seem promising. But according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, only 15 per cent of law enforcement agencies have adopted the program. Oliver suggested it should be mandatory.
“There are many more [programs] designed for many different levels of need, and we as a society have to figure out how to fund them. Not just because it makes fiscal sense, but because it would save lives. And if I remember rightly, there are some politicians who claim to be pretty motivated to address this problem,” Oliver concluded as he replayed the clips of Trump, Carson and Huckabee.
“If we’re going to constantly use mentally ill people to dodge conversations about gun control, then the very least we owe them is a fucking plan.”
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