By Annan Boodram
Mass shootings in the US continue to bring to the fore the issue of the relationship between mental illness and violence. For example, US President Donald Trump expressed the view that the February 2017 Florida shooter’s mental illness inevitably catalysed his mass killings. But what are the facts?
A 2000 article in Psychology Today entitled “Are the Mentally Ill Really Violent?’ by Edward P Mulvey and Jess Fardella, stated, “The overwhelming majority of people with diagnosed mental disorders do not engage in violence.” In fact the article pointed out, “Certain factors that appear to be associated with an increased likelihood of violence are in line with common sense’. In effect it’s the same for persons with and without mental illness.
A 1998 study published in the General Archives of Psychiatry by the MacArthur Risk Assessment Project, “shows that the circumstances in which mental patients most commonly commit violence do not differ markedly from those surrounding crimes committed by people who are not mentally ill. In both groups, violence most often arises from everyday stress, such as conflicts with spouses, family members and co-workers.” That study also found that patients discharged from psychiatric facilities, who did not abuse alcohol and illegal drugs, had a rate of violence no different than that of their neighbors in the community. In fact, research indicates that fewer than 5 five percent of gun-related killings are committed by the mentally ill.
In effect, as the American Psychiatric Association emphasised following the Feb 2017 Florida shooting, the “disparaging and inaccurate remarks about mental illness serve only to perpetuate stigma and prohibit honest and open dialogue about an illness (or disorder) that affects one in five people in the nation.”
For people with mental illnesses such stigma makes an already difficult existent much harder. As columnist` The Mighty ‘puts it in the February 24 issue of the Huffington Post, “When you have a mental illness, you can feel utterly alone. You feel like a mime in an invisible box you can’t escape. The pain is not like that of a physical illness. The pain is deep and the sorrow or burdens hold on to you, sometimes for years. You live like that, a constant cycle of feeling like you will never get better because of what has happened or what will happen if you don’t “try harder”. Of course, part of getting better is putting work into it, but it takes a long time for some people.“ And, for some people, never.
In fact, advances in brain imaging indicate that the brains of persons who are clinically depressed look different than the brains of the non-depressed, similar to a diseased heart being different than a healthy heart. A combination of genetics and environment contribute to clinical depression, and episodes of depression can be triggered by traumatic experiences such as: childhood or adult physical or sexual abuse; loss of a loved one; relationship problems; unemployment; poverty; pregnancy; childbirth; a serious physical health illness such as cancer or AIDS; an accident or a natural disaster, as well as by a family history of depression; loneliness and a profound exposure to social alienation. Sometimes, however, depression can have no obvious cause at all.
Also, scientists have found specialised brain cells in mice that appear to control anxiety levels. “If we can learn enough, we can develop the tools to turn on and off the key players that regulate anxiety in people,” says Joshua Gordon, Director of the US National Institute of Mental Health. The situation is similar with respect to treatment for depression. As well, these advances open up possibilities for other mental health issues.
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