Reactionary, ill-informed commentary perpetuates stigma | The Kennedy Forum

Reactionary, ill-informed commentary perpetuates stigma
August 13, 2019

By Patrick J. Kennedy

Recently, Americans once again watched as communities in Texas and Ohio were torn apart by unthinkable violence—the aftermath to be felt for decades.

In these moments of stress, anger, and grief it is only natural to look for answers. But I know I’m not alone in my dismay for the blame being placed on mental illness.

We have now heard everyone from news anchors to the President of the United States cite mental illness for the reason behind mass shootings. Such reactionary, ill-informed commentary not only paints an inaccurate picture of this uniquely American problem, it perpetuates the very stigma so many advocates, families, and individuals have fought tirelessly to eradicate.

Three steps forward, two steps back.

To stop this dangerous trend, we must work together to promote the spread of credible information rather than sensationalized misinformation. It is our responsibility to ensure that the minds of America’s youth are shaped by facts, not rhetoric.

That is why I want to point out key data recently released by the National Council for Behavioral Health. “Mass Violence in America: Causes, Impacts and Solutions” took a close look at the statistics and existing evidence on mass violence in our country, including the extent to which mental illness was or was not a contributing factor. According to the report, people with serious mental illness are responsible for less than four percent of all violence, and less than one-third of mass violence.

Most perpetrators of mass violence are “males who are often hopeless, harboring grievances that are frequently related to work, finances or interpersonal relationships; who feel victimized and relate to others whom they perceive to be similarly mistreated; who are indifferent to life and often subsequently die by suicide; who plan and prepare for their attack; and who often share information about the attack with others, though often not with the intended victims.”

Make no mistake—these characteristics are not synonymous with “mental illness.” Nor have they ever been. It is irresponsible to imply otherwise, whether you are a parent struggling to explain an act of mass violence to your child at night or an elected leader with an audience of millions.

It is my sincere hope that that our leaders will listen to the recommendations of our nation’s professional organizations and associations as we struggle to define a path forward. For example, the National Council’s recommendations included assembling threat assessment teams; training for law enforcement, clinicians, and school staff; enacting extreme-risk protection orders; and more.

There are real, actionable steps we can take now to address mass violence head on. Casting blame on an entire segment of our population—those who suffer from mental illnesses—is not one of them.

Notably, if there is cause for concern when it comes the association between gun violence and mental health, it is harm inflicted on oneself rather than others. Two-thirds of all gun deaths in the US are the result of suicide, an urgent public health crisis that recently reached historic levels.

Our country does have a very serious mental health problem, but that problem is not mass shootings. It is skyrocketing rates of overdoses and suicides that continue to devastate families nationwide, including my own.

You see, we relegate those with mental health and substance use disorders to a separate and unequal system of care comprised of waiting lists, rep tape, and limitless hurdles. Accordingly, far too many individuals go undiagnosed and without treatment. And those who are able to pursue treatment often fall victim to illegal and discriminatory insurance practices that deny or severely limit care when they need it most. Now, more than ever, we desperately need an equitable system of care, where illnesses of the brain are treated with the same urgency and resources as illnesses of the body.

If you are fed up with our country’s broken system like I am, join me and others across the nation in demanding that mental health and addiction be elevated in policy conversations during the upcoming 2020 election cycle. Visit to sign a statement of support, and learn more about the upcoming Mental Health for US Presidential Candidate Forum in Des Moines, Iowa on September 27.

Progress requires thoughtful conversation, not just talk. Let us be the change we want to see by correcting misinformation and empowering the next generation with compassion and understanding.

Learn more about your right to equal coverage for mental health and addiction treatment services at today.