Episode 20: The Danger of Linking Mental Illness and Mass Violence

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It's Monday, August 5th, 2019 and we're still reeling from the mass shootings that claimed 20 lives in El Paso on Saturday and another nine in Dayton, Ohio on Sunday.

These are just the latest mass shootings of 2019. Twelve people died in Virginia Beach, Virginia in May and five people died in Aurora, Illinois in February.

During these tragic events when people are searching for what is to blame, our job at Mental Health Association Oklahoma is to educate the community that it is dangerous to link mental health with violence.

The fact is that most people with serious mental illnesses are never violent. People impacted by mental illness are 11 times actually more likely to be the victim of violence than to perpetrate it. And to back that up, a Surgeon General's report on mental health found that the contribution of mental health conditions to violence in our society is very small.

In the aftermath of mass shootings, the news media often turn to our guest today, Mike Brose, who is the CEO of Mental Health Association Oklahoma. They call Mike and they want answers. They want to understand why these sort of events are happening and how the general public can cope with them. Sadly, Mike's had to answer these questions for decades, including in the aftermath of Columbine, Sandy Hook and, honestly, too many others.

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Matt Gleason:
Mike, tell us about some of the coping mechanisms that you always tell people in the aftermath of these mass shootings.

Mike Brose:
One of the things for the listeners to keep in mind is that of all the gun deaths in the country, only about 2 percent are attributable to some sort of mass casualty event. There's a lot of use of firearms in our culture right now that can include self-harm, suicide and they're also tied to domestic violence events in some ways.

The standard reason why people want to own a firearm is they would say for protection. But the chances of someone breaking into your home and you having to rely on a fire arm to protect yourself is infinitely small. So we have to keep that in perspective. But, again, two percent of all gun deaths in the country would be attributed to a mass casualty situation, so that signals us that we can remind ourselves and our families that the culture and the society is still very safe place. We can continue to be in a public space and do that carefree. Does that mean we're not vigilant? Does that mean we're not paying attention about what's around us? We should always be doing that.

One coping skill is to know about the factual information about what's happened, but to not gorge ourselves on all the cable news networks and all the things that are going on. We should particularly try to limit exposure to our children. I always tell parents, "If we stay calm, our kids will stay calm.”

Some of the listeners might need some extra help or assistance getting some extra help with that, but the culture is still very, very safe and people should be able to go about their business and be calm about it. There is a smaller minority of people that this is so upsetting that they might need a little extra assistance and Mental Health Association Oklahoma stands ready to provide that.

Matt Gleason:
Several years ago, a mass shooting happened and you did a radio interview. The gentleman called you out and said, "Well, Mike, are you against guns?" And you very, very carefully explained what our policy is. So explain what our policy actually is on guns.

Mike Brose:
I'm not saying it's an official position of the Mental Health Association Oklahoma to oppose the availability of military assault rifles. Although I'm not sure we shouldn't maybe think about that, or even examine that as a potential official policy of the organization.

Up until now, our policy has been very strongly that if you own a firearm, that you should always use trigger locks and have a gun safe.

There's about 18,000 people killed annually in this country by homicide; a high percentage of those are with firearms. And then we have about 46,000 people die every year in the U.S. by suicide, almost three times as many. A high percentage of those suicides, the majority of those are from firearms.

Matt Gleason:
The whole reason I wanted to talk to you is that it seems like with these events, people are using mental illness as kind of a scapegoat, like, well, it's just, you know, people with mental illness. This is an old stat, but I think it is very relevant today. Gallup polling data from January, 2013 showed that 48% of adult Americans blame the mental health system “a great deal” for mass shootings in the United States. When there is an incident of mass gun violence, mental illness is routinely discussed as a likely cause, and the rights and liberties of the up to 25% of Americans with mental health conditions are placed in jeopardy. So what do you think about this, Mike?

Mike Brose:
There is evidence to support that when an individual is in a untreated state of mental illness, that there is a higher chance that there could be some sort of a conflict of some type. We want to make sure that everybody who needs treatment receives it. These conditions are extremely treatable.

What we're battling here is perception versus reality. And I'm trying to present to you reality. We're fighting against these perceptions that are very pervasive. We saw our very own president today, and some of the other elected officials, blaming mental illness for these events.

When somebody is in a psychotic state, they've crossed that line where they no longer fully understand in their current state of mind that they have an illness. And again, we're not talking about people who are violent. We're talking about people who are really sick and they're not doing well at all. We utilize the systems out there, that civil commitment process, if necessary, to make sure that person gets the help they need.

Of course, a lot of the missing part is we don't have enough funding for a more robust community mental health care system. Until we are willing to invest in the community mental health care system at the rate needed, we will continue to have families struggling with loved one who have histories of medication noncompliance. But we know that outreach engagement, case management, availability of a pharmaceutical treatment, other types of talking therapy, supportive therapy, these techniques are highly effective. But we sometimes struggle as a culture. We're not funding them and investing in them at the levels we need to.

Matt Gleason:
Thanks, Mike, for being here. You always provide such wonderful insight. I do want to point out that a lot of times after these events we can feel powerless, but everybody has a role to play in making a difference in legislation. I would just encourage everyone to go to our website, mhaok.org/advocate, and sign up for our advocacy alerts. Sign up for opportunities where you can speak your mind to your legislator and tell them we've had enough. We will not stand for another mass violence event. As you said, Mike, in the Tulsa World, it's not IF something like this will happen to us in Oklahoma, it's WHEN.

Mike Brose:
I think that's a real takeaway of this weekend. You know, we need to prepare, but go about your business. Do what you would normally do. Go do the good things that you're doing every day. Get right back up on that horse and go out there and it'll be good and you'll feel better for it, and your family will feel better for it. That's not letting these individuals impact us in that way.