Boost Mental-Health Care if You Really Want to Cut Gun Deaths

By: Bill Kelly, MHA Houston Director of Public Policy and Government Affairs
The Post Newspaper of Galveston County


With the presidential-nomination campaigns in full swing, it is little surprise that president Barack Obama’s recent proposals on gun access have been met with political spin instead of objective analysis. Both sides are looking to make overgeneralizations without looking at the practical numbers behind the real issue we should address – our mental-health crisis.

Any conversation on gun violence should start with a basic set of facts in order to see the complete picture. Looking at the number of gun deaths, then moving to gun-violence and mental-health connections and, finally, to where real bipartisan progress can be made in expanding access to mental-health care can give depth to the otherwise shallow arguments being made in today’s debate.
When looking at the actual occurrence of gun deaths in the United States, there is a very prominent role for those experiencing mental illness and it is not mass-shooting settings. The point about gun access and suicide is clear in these statistics:

  • More than 60 per cent of people in this country who die from gunshots die by suicide;
  • According to Harvard School Of Public Health, 19,392 people took their own lives with guns , in the USA in 2010, while 11,078 were shot to death by others; and
  • There are more than 90 suicides every hour, 90 per cent of which are related to mental illness.
    People are concerned that sufferers of mental illness will gain access to a gun to kill others. In fact, they should be much more worried about them having easy access to guns that can be used to take their own life.

As Matthew Miller, associate director of Harvard Injury Control Research Center puts it: “If every life is important and, if you’re trying to save people from dying by gunfire, then you can’t ignore nearly two thirds of the people who are dying.”

What about those who are suffering from mental illness? Aren’t they “dangerous”, as the political talking heads and media consistently assert? When Hogg Foundation For Mental Health hosted a forum about violence prevention and mental health at the Texas capitol in February 2015, some interesting statistics mentioned by Joel Dvoskin from University Of Arizona included:

  • People suffering from a severe and persistent mental illness are 11 to 12 times more likely to be victims of a violent crime;
  • If all violence related to mental illness were to go away, the overall reduction in violent crime would be only 4 per cent; and
  • The odds of someone with schizophrenia killing another person is approximately 1 in 140,000.

The knee-jerk reaction to closely associate gun violence with mental illness completely misses the point in the current debate about gun access. Further stigmatizing mental illness by closely associating it with gun violence is perhaps the most prominent example of mischaracterization of a public-health issue in the media today.

The people who suffer from mental illness are our friends, neighbors, co-workers and family members and the system serving them has consistently failed to provide the needed medical care for their medical conditions.

One in five people suffers from a mental disorder – more than cancer, diabetes or heart disease – yet, despite its prevalence, only 3 per cent of the world’s healthcare budgets are directed at treating mental illness.

Altogether, 360,000 people suffering mental illness are housed in underequipped US jails, with only 35,000 in hospitals.

According to a 2013 Kaiser study, Texas ranks 49th in the nation for public funding for mental health. In Harris County, even with massive increases in the state budget in the past two legislative sessions, there is a striking gap of mental-health access for residents. According to a Mental Health Needs Council report:

  • 142,930 adults had a serious mental illness in Harris County in 2015;
  • 89,579 county residents suffering serious mental illness had no Medicaid, Medicare or
    private health insurance and were exclusively dependent on the public mental-health-service system for treatment; and
  • The county’s Harris Center is able to treat between 11,000 and 12,000 per month, covering only a fraction of the affected population.

Like clockwork, whenever the debate over gun control erupts, there will be questions around the mental-healthcare system, with calls to improve it. When enough time passes for the guns debate to die down, bipartisan calls for mental-health care also fade from the headlines.

That’s how common-sense bills like three 2015 measures seeking to fund certified peer-support services, requiring post-traumatic-stress-disorder coverage in Texas insurance plans and expanding post-partum depression coverage become bogged down. All three had bipartisan support but failed to become law during last year’s legislative session.

Instead of arguing at the margins, politicians on both sides of the partisan divide should be addressing the funding, access and quality of our mental-health system and not changing the subject from the need for additional resources.

The biggest impact in reducing gun deaths in the United States would be effective suicide prevention and improved mental healthcare – and that’s not debatable.