In the aftermath of the shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 dead, we have witnessed an all too familiar pattern of vilifying people with psychiatric disabilities. In one of his first tweets following the tragedy, Donald Trump referred to the assailant as “mentally disturbed.” In a later tweet, he said that teachers should be armed with guns to defend against a “sicko shooter.” While continuing to blame people with psychiatric disabilities for the country’s gun violence problem, last week, during a “listening session,” Trump called for the re-opening of psychiatric institutions.
“You know, years ago, we had mental hospitals—mental institutions. We had a lot of them, and a lot of them have closed. They’ve closed. Some people thought it was a stigma. Some people thought, frankly, it was a—the legislators thought it was too expensive,” Trump said. “Today, if you catch somebody, they don’t know what to do with them. He hasn’t committed the crime, but he may very well. And there’s no mental institution, there’s no place to bring them. We have that a lot.”
While Trump is right that there are far fewer institutions open today, he is incorrect to believe that re-opening these hospitals would reduce mass shootings. Indeed, his erroneous statement flies in the face of longstanding research, which has consistently revealed that people with psychiatric disabilities are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators. Certainly there are instances when mental illness may play a role in gun violence. However, the reality is that an overwhelming majority do not: Only 4 percent of violence in the United States can be attributed to those with psychiatric disabilities. In fact, people with serious mental illness are 11 times more likely to be victims, rather than perpetrators, of violence.
Despite research to the contrary, the Parkland tragedy has demonstrated, once again, the ease with which people from across the political spectrum will blame people with psychiatric disabilities for these horrific events. “We’re the easy scapegoats and society sets us up as the villains. These politicians prey on that fact because they are doing anything not to talk about the serious gun problem we have in the United States,” Katherine Perez, co-founder of the National Coalition for Latinxs with Disabilities, told Rewire.
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“Research doesn’t seem to mean much to politicians. I’m not even certain that pointing to the fact that people with psychiatric disabilities are more likely to be victims than perpetrators does much to sway public opinion,” said Perez, who identifies as having a psychiatric disability. “There’s something easy about labeling someone who could do such heinous acts as mentally unstable. Even easier if that person is white. We fall on these basic tropes so we don’t have to do the hard work of really figuring out where we went wrong.”
Jennifer Mathis, director of policy and legal advocacy at the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, agrees. “I think these myths tend to persist in part because they are a convenient narrative for lawmakers seeking to avoid the topic of regulating guns (and who repeatedly deflect calls for such regulation by claiming that the real issue is a need to focus more on mental health, even as most of these same lawmakers continue to support proposals that would dramatically cut funding for needed mental health services),” Mathis, who has worked as a disability rights attorney for 23 years, explained to Rewire via email: “People with psychiatric disabilities have also become a target for some lawmakers who do want to regulate guns but wrongly believe that reporting people with psychiatric disabilities to gun databases is a meaningful solution, despite the evidence that it would have virtually no impact on gun violence” because of the low percentage of violent people with mental illness and the existing failures in our systems. It would also, she noted, “distract from efforts to focus where there is actually far more predictive value, such as people with histories of violent crimes or domestic violence.”
Beyond the issue of automatically blaming people with psychiatric disabilities for violence, Trump’s remarks in favor of institutions fly in the face of evidence-based mental health-care standards. The closure of state institutions for people with psychiatric disabilities (as well as for people with intellectual disabilities) has been deliberate and part of the “deinstitutionalization” movement from advocates and policy makers. At their peak highest population, 560,000 individuals lived in state-run mental institutions in the United States. By 2016, there were about 37,500 psychiatric beds available in state hospitals—and even fewer in private ones.
Historically, state institutions served as a place to warehouse people with mental disabilities. Rather than receive any type of therapeutic services, those who were forced to live in these environments were often subjected to overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, and abuse. By the late 1950s, the deplorable conditions of these institutions begun to be exposed, and policymakers shifted toward community-based services—such as case management, outpatient treatment, or housing supports—for people with psychiatric disabilities.
That progress makes Trump’s recent remarks most alarming to disability advocates. “We should be moving away, far away, from the large, state-run mental hospitals of our dark past and the vestiges of the institutionalization of people with psychiatric and other mental disabilities (including prisons) as public policy,” Perez told Rewire. “Anyone who suggests we need to bring back or proliferate these type of institutions is promoting human rights violations steeped in classist, sexist, and racist ideology.”
And again, there is no reason to believe that increased institutions would decrease gun violence. “People with psychiatric disabilities account for a minuscule fraction of gun violence, so the notion that locking people with psychiatric disabilities up in institutions will have a meaningful impact on gun violence is absurd,” Mathis told Rewire.
“Moreover, the president seemed to suggest that people should be institutionalized not based on being a danger but simply based on having a psychiatric disability. Such a proposal would be unconstitutional, and would take us back several decades to a time when individuals were civilly committed with little or no due process and often with no good reason, frequently spending years or their entire lives on the back wards of state hospitals and often experiencing abuse or neglect. It would also roll back decades of progress made by state mental health systems in expanding the use of more effective community-based services,” Mathis continued.
Importantly, the need for increased mental health treatment should not be conflated with conversations about gun reform. However, Trump is right that the United States needs far more and better mental health care. Although deinstitutionalization is an important achievement in the disability-rights movement, people with psychiatric disabilities continue to receive inadequate community-based supports. Indeed, people with psychiatric disabilities have low rates of employment and high rates of homelessness. More troubling, people with psychiatric disabilities—especially people of color—continue to be disproportionately overrepresented in the criminal justice system. These stark statistics point to a need for greater community-based support systems, not more institutions.
Although Trump purports to be concerned about the need for greater mental health care, his proposed budget paints an entirely different picture. In fact, Trump’s proposed budget significantly slashes spending for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration as well as the National Institute of Mental Health. Trump has also proposed massive cuts to Medicaid and Medicare, the largest payers of behavioral health services in the United States.
Undeniably, we as a country, must do more to support those with psychiatric disabilities. However, freely espousing terms like “crazy,” “insane,” and “mentally deranged,” as a way to justify the urgent need for greater gun control is entirely inappropriate. Calling for more institutions will also not prevent these senseless acts.
What happened in Parkland is heartbreaking and should never have happened. Nonetheless, engaging in ableist rhetoric will do nothing to stop similar tragedies from occurring in the future and will only serve to further perpetuate stigma against those with psychiatric disabilities. Indeed, the only way to stop gun violence is to pass comprehensive, evidence-based gun control laws.