Changing the headlines around gun violence

April 5, 2023 4:55 am
Mental health spelled out using scrabble type letters

The stigma associated with mental illness already presents obstacles to treatment. (Piotrekswat | Getty Images)

Again this week, mass shooting events are headlining the news. And again, the most recent is an unspeakable tragedy that took place in an elementary school. The headlines beg for solutions and leave us feeling helpless and sorrowful. We have yet to see the assignment of blame in any of these terrible situations result in significant change; instead, we see and feel our collective energy being used to fuel anger at a particular person, or a group of people, rather than toward a meaningful solution. 

Too often the people responsible, the ones with the guns, are identified as having a mental illness, further marginalizing an already stigmatized group of vulnerable citizens. The 10 Community Mental Health Centers in New Hampshire are charged with caring for this population. Often these mass shooting events and the sensationalizing around them serve to hamper our efforts and make our difficult work even more difficult. 

The most recent events in Tennessee, Mississippi, and California – sadly, you could insert the name of almost any state here – have led to the shooters being called “mentally ill monsters.” Imagine how that description is heard by someone attempting to manage their depression, or by a family who has just learned that their 19-year-old son has been diagnosed with schizophrenia? Are these people really monsters? Of course not, but the cavalier comments of political opportunists and media outlets do shape the thoughts and beliefs of those listening.

The stigma associated with mental illness already presents obstacles to treatment. It is so powerful that a friend of mine openly discusses his struggles with alcohol, but cannot accept his underlying depressive disorder.  

The continued focus on mental illness as a cause of mass shootings only serves to perpetuate and amplify the stigma. For perspective, the overwhelming majority of people with a mental illness are more likely to be victims of violent crime rather than to be the perpetrators. It is also true that the majority of recent mass shootings have been carried out by an individual with a mental illness. However, there is a significant qualitative difference between an individual who becomes agitated and fixated on a particular theme and then acts on those feelings, and a person with a major depressive illness or bipolar disorder.

This year the N.H. Community Behavioral Health Association, which represents the 10 Community Mental Health Centers, joined with NAMI-NH, Moms Demand Action, and hundreds of citizens, to support House Bill 106, relative to extreme risk protection orders. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia now have so-called “red flag laws,” and in New England, all our neighboring states except for Maine have enacted these laws.

Our House of Representatives rejected HB 106 on a vote of 198-172, even when presented the facts that suicide was the cause of death for over 23 percent of residents in New Hampshire, age 1 to 21, between 2017 and 2021; and that 38 percent of those suicides were gun deaths. I want to emphasize that gun safety translates into public safety, for an at-risk individual who owns firearms; for their family members; and for the community at large. With an extreme risk protection order law, there are no losers but only winners, who can temporarily remove a weapon and prevent a tragic incident.

Please join me, the Community Mental Health Centers, and our many partners in the mental health field by continuing to support change every chance we get. The current headlines causing us to weep and despair can change – but only if we develop public policies that will both reduce both gun violence and start to erase the stigma around mental illness.

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Maggie Pritchard
Maggie Pritchard

Maggie Pritchard is president of the NH Community Behavioral Health Association and executive director of Lakes Region Mental Health Center. She lives in Boscawen.