Hank Milius: Linking gun violence to mental illness creates a false narrative

From The Star Press

I picked up my wife Terri, a retired fourth-grade teacher, at the airport the evening of the mass school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. By now, we know the details all too well – 19 children and two teachers were killed by a young man using an assault-style rifle he had legally purchased just a day after his 18th birthday.

Terri had just returned from a weeklong visit with our grandkids. She greeted me with a kiss and beaming smile. It was apparent she had not yet heard the news. I drove her home without listening to the radio and when we got home made sure we didn’t watch TV. I wanted to give her one night of blissful ignorance, enjoying the return home to me and Maggie, her golden doodle. She went to sleep not knowing what had occurred. When she awoke in the morning I said, “I have to tell you something bad.” She just burst into tears. I’m sure many of you did the same when you learned of this new reality in our lives.

We have all shared the same horror in the wake of the recent mass shootings across the United States. Mass shootings happen in the United States with depressing regularity – but the past month has been jarring. First, we received news of a shooting at a grocery store, soon after an elementary school, and then a hospital. According to data compiled by the Gun Violence Archive, the United States is on pace to match or surpass its worst year on record for the number of mass shootings with 267 occurring so far in 2022.

This issue is becoming a public health issue. As a healthcare organization we need to address it as such.

First, let’s be clear, this is not a mental health issue. The U.S. does not have a higher prevalence rate than other countries as it relates to mental illness. I say this as a gun owner myself: It is a matter of accessibility and abundance of guns.

Indeed, gun violence is a public health issue but linking it to mental health only adds to the stigma of mental illness. We must normalize conversations between doctors and patients about firearm safety the same way we counsel patients on sugar intake or exercise. Certainly, there are cases of gun violence by individuals who have a mental illness. But to suggest there is a cause and effect by inextricably linking the two builds a false narrative. Additionally, it is the aftermath of these mass shootings that contributes to the very real mental health crisis in our country showing up as post-traumatic stress symptoms, depression, not to mention the effect on our children, who no longer feel safe in schools or in crowds.

Major healthcare networks have joined a campaign organized by Northwell Health to recognize gun violence as a public health crisis and identify solutions aimed at reducing the bloodshed. According to findings from Northwell Health’s firearm safety campaign, physicians’ counseling on gun safety can save lives. Furthermore, patients generally support being asked about firearm access.

Some facts to consider from Mental Health America:

  • When ranked with other countries of similar economic growth, the U.S. does not have a significantly higher proportion of people with mental health conditions than other industrialized countries. But it does have exponentially higher rates of gun ownership and gun violence.
  • It is critically important that public officials and policymakers stop responding to gun violence and mass shootings with statements that mental health conditions are the underlying issue. The claim is false and discriminatory.
  • Mental illness is not a predictor of violence towards others, but is a predictor of suicide. Firearm deaths associated with mental illness are nearly always suicides. The majority of people with mental illness are not violent. If mental illness were eliminated, gun violence in America would go down by only 4 percent.
  • People with mental illness – some living in jails and prisons and others in crisis – absolutely need more services. They require what we all require -employment, educational, social, family, community, and peer support systems. These necessary treatments and supports should be available to those who need them but not because it will reduce violence in the U.S.

Meridian has taken steps to ensure the safety of our staff, patients and communities we serve. We require active shooter training for all employees and since the recent tragic events, have refreshed all employees on our emergency management policies and procedures. These safety procedures and trainings increase staff safety and allow us create a safer space for our patients. Additionally, Meridian provides professional presentations regarding mental health and interventions for law enforcement and emergency services personnel during County Crisis Intervention Team sessions. These sessions are organized by participating organizations such as the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. Topics include recognizing and interacting with those who may be in a crisis and need immediate care. In addition, we offer lay persons such as teachers, coaches, ministers Mental Health First Aid, a training which helps recognize early warning signs of suicide. So far, we have trained 757 individuals throughout the communities we serve.

We and other healthcare organizations can make a difference in our corner of the world by educating our patients on firearm safety and prevention, as well as educating the community regarding mental health awareness. Our top priority at Meridian Health Services is the health and safety of our staff, patients, and community.

Hank Milius is President and Chief Executive Officer at Meridian Health Services.