Stop scapegoating the mentally ill

Without putting too fine a point on it and without sharing people’s business that is not mine to share, my family — going back for more than a century, but certainly at present — is quite familiar with mental health difficulties. I have days on my Google calendar when there are so many therapy appointments to keep track of that I get the “three more items” prompt at the bottom. If I have to fill out one more psych patient intake form for anyone I’m related to I’m pretty sure I get a free sub. I’m getting the “NORM!” treatment when I walk into the pharmacy to pick up everyone’s prescriptions. In short: I know at least a little about mental health and the struggles of people who suffer from mental illness.

And I know that these motherfuckers do not:

More to the point, I know that these motherfuckers simply do not care. I know that these motherfuckers, knowing that the national gun fetish they’ve stoked has created an incalculable body count at this point, will automatically look for something — anything — else to blame. As is so often the case, they blame the vulnerable. They blame the mentally ill.

I know a few more things:

  • That only 3%–5% of violent acts can be attributed to individuals living with a serious mental illness. In fact, people with severe mental illnesses are over 10 times more likely to be victims of violent crime than the general population;
  • Despite the sort of lip service like Carlson is offering above, Republican budgets frequently slash mental health care, either directly or indirectly. Republicans have routinely, as a matter of policy, have proposed and/or enacted billion or even trillion dollar cuts to Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security Disability Insurance. Those programs are by far the largest payers of behavioral health services in the country. When it comes time for belt-tightening, mental health care is always going to cut before chest X-rays and cardiac care; and
  • The mentally ill are far more likely to use guns on themselves than on other people, and when mental illness and deadly violence coincide, ready access to a gun is a major risk factor for suicide. According to the Centers for Disease Control there were 24,432 gun suicides in the United States in 2018. Three-quarters of them involved handguns. Our suicide attempt rates in this country are not significantly higher than in other countries but our “success” rate is considerably higher given how much more access people have here to the most lethal means of committing suicide. The guns are the driving factor, not the mental illness as such.

That last item is one that is not a mere academic matter. In my fun travels through the world of mental health care these past few months there have been countless times when psychiatrists and therapists have had to go over various checklists with me. One of the first questions on those checklists is “are there firearms in your house.” Once, after answering “no” to that for the third or fourth time I made a mild crack about it. The response back from the doctor, while polite, was serious. The upshot of it was, and I’m paraphrasing, “we can do all kinds of things to treat serious mental illness. We cannot do anything about someone with a gun in their hand.”

Blaming Tuesday’s mass murder or any other act of violence on mental illness is classic scapegoating. It’s ignoring a real, demonstrable problem — the clear connection between gun ownership and gun violence — and disingenuously targeting the mentally ill as the cause of the problem. It also ignores the fact that there are a great many people who commit horrific acts without being mentally ill. Indeed, psychological factors which are not mental illnesses — things like hostility, aggression, anger, alienation, misogyny — are far more likely predictors of violence than depression, anxiety bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses.

The fact that Republicans don’t attribute violence to aggression, misogyny, and the like says a hell of a lot. The fact that they, instead, punch down at the mentally ill says a hell of a lot too.

Craig Calcaterra

Craig is the author of the daily baseball (and other things) newsletter, Cup of Coffee. He writes about other things at He lives in New Albany, Ohio with his wife, two kids, and many cats.