The relationship between gun violence and mental illness was a major topic of discussion during a public forum Monday put on by the Disability Inclusion Society, a newly formed nonprofit organization who targets mental health awareness and inclusivity for people living with disabilities.
“We wanted to not only provide education on a really important topic, and to give people a platform,” Executive Director of the DIS Val Vera said.
The panel, which included four experts on the topic, aimed to debunk the myths that linked gun violence to mental illnesses and the stigmatization that follows it.
“People with disabilities are most likely to be victims of violence than to be perpetrators,” UNT Staff Psychologist and Multicultural Coordinator Dr. Encedila Sauceda said. “We have seen that across the board regardless of diagnosis.”
Dr. Claudette Fette, another panelist, agreed with Sauceda and that the situation is different.
“They are not generally more likely to be violent than anyone else,” Fette said. “There are a couple of exceptions to that and one is in the areas of suicide, which falls under violence against oneself.”
Fette also said that people with mental illnesses are usually victims of a crime because of how society treats them.
“They are more at risk because of the stigma we put on them as well,” Fette said. “So when we dehumanize people because they have an illness, we make it easier to hurt them without consequence.”
Fette said not only is it about how we stigmatize people with mental illness but it is also how we talk about it.
“We also have a problem with our language and that we confuse mental health and mental illness,” Fette said. “Even in our language we talk about mental health as if it is synonymous with mental illness but they are really two distinct constructs. We all have mental health, but mental illness is a very specific set of illnesses and it does not predispose anyone violence anymore than anything else.”
When asked why mental illness is often attributed to gun violence, Sauceda said it is only done so to benefit certain groups.
“The language that we use in the media and amongst each other is that this conversation comes up when the perpetrator is a white man,” Sauceda said. “It is not compassionate and it feels like it is exclusive to certain identities. So when dialogue comes up in relation to mental health, it lacks sincerity.”
The panel also discussed how violent video games can also lead mass shootings. Lydia Martinez, a mental health advocate and peer support specialist said it is not about video games, but the culture and rhetoric surrounding guns in America.
“Our country has the most guns by far and we are the most violent when it comes to firearms,” Martinez said. “It’s not crime that makes a difference, it’s not immigrants or people with mental illness. The violence is coming the easy availability of guns. I don’t think video games play a part.”
Sauceda said you cannot usually look at one variable when determining the cause of gun violence, but access to guns was a recurring theme.
“I think it’s complicated when we try to find one answer to what’s going on,” Sauceda said. “It’s hard to figure out what that variable is. I did find some research that had one common variable and that was access to a firearm.”
As the discussion progressed, the focus shifted on the causes of gun violence to how people can help those with mental illnesses. Dr. Enny Torres-Yanez, another panelist and bilingual licensed psychologist at TWU, said if family members are worried that their loved ones with mental illness are trying to hurt themselves, they should say something.
“You have to ask the hard questions,” Torres-Yanez said. “If your gut feeling is telling you something is wrong, trust that feeling, because if you are seeing it, they are probably thinking about it. Ask your loved-one those questions.”
After the forum, Vera said he hopes that people can walk away with something positive.
“I hope they took away a sense of community that they’re not alone in their frustrations on this topic, some practical knowledge and resources, and even some connections,” Vera said.
Featured Image: Dr. Enny Torres Yanez, staff psychologist and multicultural/diversity coordinator at UNT, addresses the audience about gun violence and mental health illnesses. Image be Jacob McCready