Dear Parkland students,
You have my deepest sympathy for the heartbreaking losses you have suffered. You also have my sincere respect for your courage and your passionate activism, and my admiration for how much you have accomplished already in galvanizing the country. And you are just getting started! If anyone is “woke,” YOU are!
In solidarity, I traveled to Washington, D.C., last weekend to participate in the March for Our Lives, which you so brilliantly organized. Although there was a march in my home base of Philadelphia—as there were in more than 800 cities and towns around the world!—I wanted to be in D.C. among the huge crowd that gathered there, estimated at between 200,000 and 800,000, depending on who’s counting. (As we ended up stuck at 9th Street watching you speak on a jumbotron, it certainly seemed like 800,000!)
But I must be honest: I have a serious mental health condition, for which I have been locked up on a psych ward more than once and force-drugged. However, like the overwhelming majority of people who have one or more psychiatric diagnoses, I am not violent, and I am far more likely to be the victim of violence than the perpetrator.
So I was taken aback when I read your “Manifesto to Fix America’s Gun Laws” in The Guardian. At first, “you had me at hello.” In fact, as I began to read, I was actually thinking that your demands don’t go far enough! (Along with retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, I would like to repeal the Second Amendment—and that’s just for starters.)
But when I read, “Change privacy laws to allow mental healthcare providers to communicate with law enforcement,” I thought, These students have been sold a bill of goods about the bogus connection between mental health conditions and gun violence.
As I hope to convince you, any such “connection” is false. To quote from a federal government website, “Most people with mental illness are not violent and 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.”
Many journalists “get it.” Reflecting on your manifesto, Sarah Jaffe wrote in The New Republic, “The proposals [published in The Guardian] included more funding for mental health research and professionals—a laudable goal, but it came with the recommendation that privacy laws be amended to give police more access to mental health records. These demands, mental health professionals and longtime anti-violence activists noted, would do more to stigmatize people with mental illness and expand the reach of over-powerful police departments than to stop gun violence.” Lincoln Anthony Blades, in Teen Vogue, wrote, “There is much that needs to be unpacked and debunked when it comes to this topic, especially as it relates to blaming violence squarely on mental health issues, which isn't fair, insightful, or accurate.” David M. Perry wrote in Pacific Standard, “I expect the baseless stigmatization of mental illness to continue (only 1 percent of all gun homicides in the U.S. from 1999 through 2015 were committed by people with known mental illness)." And in The Nation, after the church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, Perry wrote, “Our mental-health system needs a lot of help, though not to stop gun violence (only 3 to 5 percent of violent acts involve people with psychiatric disabilities, who otherwise make up about 18 percent of the population."
This is not the first time I have written to people I respect who have fallen for the false link between mental health conditions and gun violence. In 2016, when President Obama held a press conference in which he perpetuated this myth, I wrote to him, much as I am writing to you now.
Dear Parkland students, I will join you on the barricades as you continue organizing and advocating for your—and everyone else’s—right to live over someone’s right to own (and shoot) a gun. In return, I hope you will educate yourselves about the myths and facts about people who have mental health conditions. We are not the problem; it’s the guns.
Yours in solidarity,
National Mental Health Consumers’ Self-Help Clearinghouse