Mentally Ill Are Gun Violence Victims, Not the Culprits

Experts Say Finger Unfairly Pointed at Mentally Ill

Jason Harrison is an example of how the mentally ill are often victims of gun violence, instead of perpetrators.  Harrison, 39, was shot and killed after his mother called police to take him to a mental hospital when he was having a psychotic episode.  Five seconds after Harrison and mother met polilce the door of his home, he was shot when he didn't follow commands to put down a screwdriver.  Photo courtesy Atlanta Black Star.


WASHINGTON –When the mother of a mentally ill man called 911 for help from her home in Dallas a few years ago, she did not expect him to be shot to death by police right in front of her.  When she called in, she specifically requested officers with mental health training and told them her son, Jason Harrison, 39, was suffering from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.  

He needed to go to the hospital, she said.  Her son’s erratic behavior was nothing new. She had called for help before.  So, when she opened her door, she casually informed them of her son’s current state.

“He’s just off the chain, she told the officers as her son ambled out the door just behind her.  “Incoherent, talking about chopping up people.” 

Harrison seemed calm.  He was twiddling with a screwdriver.  Immediately, the officers began shouting at Harrison to drop the screwdriver.  He didn’t.  Five seconds later, he was dead after being shot five times.  He lay dying in the driveway of the well-kept, middle-class home as officers continued to yell at him to drop the screw driver.

What happened to Harrison in 2014, even according to police, happens far too often when the mentally ill encounter police.   Additionally, it is a startling example of the relationship of mentally ill when it comes to guns and shooting. 

Despite statements by President Donald Trump and others regarding mentally ill Americans and guns, they are most likely the victims instead of the shooters, statistics show.

According to a study by the Treatment Advocacy Center, for example, at least half of the people shot and killed by police each year have mental health problems.  

Research suggests that the rhetoric around mass shootings can supports an invalid stereotype that people with mental illness are responsible.  The mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where 17 people were murdered, is an example.

While students and others focused on gun reform, President Trump’s initial reactions to the shooting were a commentary on the shooter’s mental health and the failure of school officials, friends, family and others who knew him to report him.

In a tweet sent out the day after the shooting, Trump said, “So many signs that the Florida shooter was mentally disturbed, even expelled from school for bad and erratic behavior. Neighbors and classmates knew he was a big problem. Must always report such instances to authorities, again and again!”

Ironically, while Trump has recommended an improved mental healthcare system as a solution to this nation’s gun problem, he signed a bill last year that makes it easier for mentally ill people to purchase guns.  Additionally, his latest budget proposal would cut public funds for mental health treatment as well as cut funds for an educational department program that is supposed to support safer schools.   

The constant focus on a shooter’s mental stability in mass shooting creates a false image of mentally ill people, experts say. According to the American Mental Health Counselor’s Association, less than 5 percent of all violence in America is attributable to the mentally ill.  

Instead, mentally ill people are more likely to be victims of violence than to commit violence, researchers found.  A study in 2014 by researchers at North Carolina State University, RTI International, the University of California, Davis, Simon Fraser University and Duke University found through their study group of mentally ill individuals, only 2.6 percent of the violent acts they committed were in school or workplace settings.

According to the Treatment Advocacy Center, people with untreated mental
illness are 16 times more likely to be shot by police than other civilians.
Photo courtesy Flickr.

Instead, the researchers reported, 31 percent of the mentally ill individuals had been victims of violence in the same time period.

Dr. Tanya Alim, a psychiatrist at Howard University Hospital and associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, said while some point to the mentally ill regarding gun violence, the nation is not providing the care the mentally ill need.

According to the U.S Department of Health and Human Services, more than half of adults with mental illness in the U.S do not receive mental healthcare treatment.

 “We need better access to care,” Alim said.  “We need to decrease the stigmatization related to mental health treatment, and we need prevention, meaning helping children at an early age and identifying illnesses early on before things get out of hand.”

Dr. Harold Koplwicz, the founding president of the Child Mind Institute and one of the nation’s leading child and adolescent psychiatrists, said early care may have an impact on gun violence. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 75 percent of all psychiatric illness occurs before the age of 24 and 50 percent before the age of 14.

“If we change the system so that people are better able to recognize it, you can treat something a lot more effectively if it’s only a year old or two years old, than someone who gets psychiatric illness after 25 or 30 years like any of us,” Koplwicz told CBS News.

Jeffrey Swanson, a professor of psychiatry at Duke University has done extensive research on guns and mental illness and argues the two subjects should be separate parts of the public debate. He was the lead author in a study that says Americans with severe anger issues are more likely to be the cause of shootings, not mentally ill people.

 “Gun violence and serious mental illness are two very important, but distinct public health issues that intersect only at their edges,” he said in a discussion of his study.

Brian Hepburn, program director at the National Association of State Mental Health, agrees and says better mental health care is desperately needed, but it would have little effect on gun violence.

“Gun violence statistics in general would not be impacted, because in general, there is not a relationship between gun violence and mental illness,” Hepburn said.  

Still, there is a link between mental illness and crime, if only because when the mentally ill do not proper treatment and medication, they commit acts that are deemed criminal and they are arrested and locked away.  

The National Alliance on Mental Health estimates that between 25 percent and 40 percent of mentally ill Americans will be jailed or incarcerated at some point in their lives. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons


The National Alliance on Mental Health estimates that between 25 percent and 40 percent of mentally ill Americans will be jailed or incarcerated at some point in their lives. The most glaring example is Cook County Jail in Chicago.

Cook County is the largest single jail in the U.S, housing about 6,500 prisoners. According to the National Alliance on Mental Health, an estimated one in three of its inmates has a form of mental illness. Consequently, every morning, correctional officers hand out thousands of doses of anti-depressants, anti-anxiety medication and other anti-psychotics.

Those who have untreated mental illness and are not incarcerated run the risk of being shot and killed during any interaction with police. According to the Treatment Advocacy Center, people with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be shot by police than other civilians. By comparison, African Americans are three times more likely to be shot by police.

Family members of these victims call for better training of police officers to de-escalate potentially violent situations with mentally ill people. In addition, experts say the traditional tactics officers use in these situations are the opposite of what they should be doing.

For example, instead of yelling and encroaching on a mentally ill person’s space, they should speak calmly and give them space.

One of the keys, law enforcement officials say, is Crisis Intervention Training, which trains officers in how to deal with the mentally ill and others during intense interactions. Only about 3,000 of the nation’s 18,000 police departments, however, have their officers go through Crisis Intervention Training, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.