It often doesn't take long after a mass shooting for people to conclude that mental illness contributed to the horrific violence.
In one of his first tweets after a shooting at a Florida high school killed 17 people, President Trump did essentially that.
“So many signs that the Florida shooter was mentally disturbed, even expelled from school for bad and erratic behavior. Neighbors and classmates knew he was a big problem. Must always report such instances to authorities, again and again!”
In a televised address at the White House, Trump pledged his administration would help “tackle the difficult issue of mental health” and said the issue of improving safety in schools would be the top priority during a meeting later this month with governors and state attorneys general. His critics noted he didn't say “guns” once.
But long before it was public that 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz reportedly had been getting treatment at a mental health clinic but had not been to the clinic for more than a year, some on social media, including social justice advocate L. Joy Williams, cautioned against making sweeping generalizations about mental health following the tragedy.
Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.) noted that the same Republican lawmakers who often blame mass shootings on mental illness voted last year to repeal the Affordable Care Act. He said that if the GOP's repeal attempt had been successful, it would have prevented millions of Americans from receiving mental health care.
Rep. Gregory W. Meeks (D-N.Y.) said Republicans simply blaming gun tragedies on mental illness is “disingenuous.”
Ronald Jonberg, senior policy adviser for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, told The Fix that invoking mental illness in the gun-control debate is often more political than helpful to those with mental-health issues.
“People start speculating, and frankly that's something politically driven and a way to deflect attention away from some of the difficult issues around gun control,” Jonberg said.
But beyond that, there are real ramifications to connecting mental illness and gun violence, he said.
“The fact is that we don't live in a society that embraces those who are experiencing the emerging symptoms of mental illness or mental health condition,” Jonberg said. “It's actually very difficult to engage people in treatment, and one of the reasons for that is that mental illness still carries with it some very serious stereotypes including linking mental illness to violence. That's one of the factors that may drive people away from help when they need it.”
Jonathan M. Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish, both of the Vanderbilt University Center for Medicine, Health and Society, previously wrote about the problems with drawing connections between mental illness and gun violence.
“On the aggregate level, the notion that mental illness causes gun violence stereotypes a vast and diverse population of persons diagnosed with psychiatric conditions and oversimplifies links between violence and mental illness. Notions of mental illness that emerge in relation to mass shootings frequently reflect larger cultural issues that become obscured when mass shootings come to stand in for all gun crime and when 'mentally ill' ceases to be a medical designation and becomes a sign of violent threat,” they wrote in the American Journal of Public Health.
Some fear that this labeling leads to greater discrimination against people with mental illness and other disabilities.
Conservative Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin wrote that “Republicans, including Trump, like to say that the gun problem is really a mental health problem. But on that front, Republicans want to do less, not more.”
She noted that “as part of 'health-care reform,' the GOP-led Congress wanted to scale back Medicaid, which in 2015, for example, 'covered 22% of nonelderly adults with mental illness and 26% of nonelderly adults with serious mental illness.'”
If mental health is truly the issue, and not guns, as conservative lawmakers imply, then calls for more support and funding for Americans with mental illnesses seem like the next probable move from advocates.
Because the president believes that mental illness led the gunman to violence, he is catching heat for signing a bill last year that rolled back Obama-era regulation intended to make it harder for people with mental illnesses to purchase guns.
The president has repeatedly pledged to be a voice for the forgotten Americans — and disability-rights advocates often see their community as one that is overlooked. Given how little mental health is discussed publicly by some lawmakers outside of national tragedies, one could argue that these Americans are forgotten. The question now is will Trump acknowledged and address their needs?