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Mental Health Not Primary Cause of Gun-Related Violence

Johnathan Dalton breaks down as he places flowers on a makeshift memorial, Monday, June 13, 2016 in memory of two of his friends who were killed during a fatal shooting at the Pulse Orlando nightclub in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
Mental Health Not Primary Cause of Gun-Related Violence
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The order of events is almost always the same after a mass shooting in the United States.

People go to the place where the shooting happened. The mourners cry or stand silently. They leave flowers, balloons or messages. Many Americans watch television reports about the shooting. Later, politicians call for strong laws to prevent individuals with mental problems from using guns.

Earlier this year, CNN invited President Barack Obama to appear on a special television program on gun violence. During the program, a law enforcement official told the president that gun violence would not end until criminals and “those with mental illness” obey gun ownership laws.

Many political leaders link shooting deaths to mental illness. The president proposed a $500 million plan to expand mental health treatment programs in an effort to limit mass shootings and gun violence.

Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, said “we have seen consistently that an underlying cause of these attacks has been mental illness, and we should look at ways to address this problem.”

But researchers say people with mental problems -- including schizophrenia and severe depression -- are no more likely to use a gun to kill others than anyone else.

Small percentage of gun violence

Beth McGinty is an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health in Maryland. She recently completed a study that found most people with mental illness in the U.S. are not violent toward others. Her study also found that mental illness is not a cause of most gun violence in the U.S.

McGinty told VOA that “even if we had a perfect mental health system that treated everyone when they needed it, and gave them effective treatment, we would probably only prevent between three to five percent of gun violence and 95 to 97 percent of gun violence would remain untouched.”

She added that “we have good studies showing that news media [reports about] mental illness really focus on rare acts of violence -- often very high-profile acts of violence like mass shootings committed by people with serious mental illness.”

McGinty says whenever there is a mass shooting, officials and reporters look for evidence that the shooter had a mental problem. She notes “violence helps sell newspapers and so that’s often what gets focused on.”

Failure to seek other causes

Experts say when shootings are blamed on mental illness, people do not think about other possible causes for the attack.

Paul Gionfriddo is president of Mental Health America, a group that helps people with mental problems. He says if we don’t “automatically think ‘mental illness,’ it would give us the opportunity to think about some other things” as the cause of mass shootings.

Gionfriddo and McGinty say the belief that mental illness is linked to gun violence hurts the image of those who suffer from these disorders. And they say it makes it more difficult for people with such illnesses to be treated.

Experts believe there has not been enough research on the causes of gun violence. They believe it should be studied as a public health threat so gun deaths can be prevented -- or at least reduced.

I’m Mehrnoush Karimian-Ainsworth.

VOA’s Carol Pearson reported this story from Washington. Christopher Jones-Cruise adapted it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

mental illness – n. a specific condition that prevents your mind from working normally; a sickness or disease

consistently – adv. continuing to happen or develop in the same way

underlying – adj. used to identify the idea, cause, problem, etc., that forms the basis of something

address – v. to give attention to (something); to deal with (a matter, issue, problem, etc.)

schizophrenia – n. a very serious mental illness in which someone cannot think or behave normally and often experiences delusions

focus – v. to cause (something, such as attention) to be directed at something specific (usually + on)

high-profile – adj. attracting a lot of attention in newspapers, on television, etc.

commit – v. to do (something that is illegal or harmful)

automatically – adj. happening or done without deliberate thought or effort

image – n. the idea that people have about someone or something