In the wake of the El Paso, Texas, Dayton, Ohio, and Gilroy, California, shootings in late July and early August, President Donald Trump returned to a talking point that has frustrated mental health professionals and criminal defence lawyers for years. In an address to the nation, he assigned blame for America’s mass-violence epidemic to one of the country’s most vulnerable populations: people with mental health issues.

“Mental illness and hatred pull the trigger, not the gun,” Trump said. Days later, at a campaign-style rally in New Hampshire, he promised to build “new facilities” in order to take “mentally deranged and dangerous people off of the streets so we won’t have to worry so much about them.”

Mental health professionals, law enforcement officials, community activists, and criminal defence lawyers all agree that Trump’s assertions are, at best, inaccurate. They also amplify existing stigmas around mental illness and deflect attention from public safety initiatives that could meaningfully reduce gun violence in America.

Experts and Data Can’t Link Mental Illness to Violent Crime

“Routinely blaming mass shootings on mental illness is unfounded and stigmatizing,” said American Psychological Association (APA) President Rose Phillips Davis in a statement following the Texas and Ohio shootings. “Research has shown that only a very small percentage of violent acts are committed by people who are diagnosed with, or in treatment for, mental illness.”

APA research shows that less than 1 per cent of American gun homicides are committed by people with serious mental illnesses.

Said Jeffrey Lieberman, Chair of the Department of Psychology at Columbia University, to ABC News in response to the President’s claims: “He’s scapegoating people with mental illness as the cause of the problem completely inappropriately.”

Duke University professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, Jeffrey Swanson, added: “What we know is that the majority of these mass shooters did not have one of the major diagnosable psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression, that we know of.”

A 2015 study led by Swanson suggests that violent crime would decrease by as little as 4 per cent if mental illness was completely eliminated in America.

A recently-released report from the National Council on Behavioral Health stated: “Simplistic conclusions ignore the fact that mass violence is caused by many social and psychological factors that interact in complex ways. Many, if not most, perpetrators do not have a major psychiatric disorder; and the large majority of people with diagnosable mental illnesses are not violent towards others.”

Some violent criminals, including mass killers, do have serious mental health issues. A 2018 FBI analysis of 63 active-shooter suspects found that 25 per cent had some form of mental illness. A 2015 study examining more than 200 men who had committed or attempted to commit mass killings found that 22 per cent could be considered mentally ill.

However, most people with mental health issues are far more likely to be victims of violent crime than perpetrators. A Statistics Canada report published in 2018 estimates that there are 1-million people living with mental-health related disabilities in Canada; one-in-ten have experienced violence in the past 12 months, double the rate of the general population.

Helping People with Mental Health Issues who are Accused of a Crime – The Criminal Law Team

The Criminal Law Team offers legal representation to persons with mental health issues who are accused of committing a crime, whether or not it is violent in nature. The criminal justice system recognizes that people with mental-health related disabilities are less morally responsible for their actions than other offenders, if their illness contributed to the commission of the crime. They are also less likely to commit another crime if they are properly treated, which is why our team develops strategies to address housing, medication, life-skills training, and counselling concerns as part of our representation of the client in court.

It is our steadfast belief that, with treatment, Canadians living with mental illness can lead happy, productive lives. However, the President’s rhetoric is making this more difficult. As Marvin Swartz, a Duke University professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, told ABC News: “His comments are really stigmatizing. And I think it makes it hard for people to accept that they have a mental illness if they’re going to be lumped in with what Trump calls deranged killers.”

In other words, people with mental health issues are less likely to seek help, either from a healthcare professional or criminal defence lawyers, if they believe that they will be vilified and blamed for violent behaviour. That’s why The Criminal Law Team takes an empathetic, understanding approach to representing people with mental illnesses.

If you or a member of your family has a mental health issue and has been accused of a crime, contact The Criminal Law Team today to learn how an experienced criminal defence lawyer can help. Stephen Hebscher has 34 years of experience helping mentally ill clients and their families to become whole again. Contact us so we can learn about your case, or that of your loved one or friend. We will discuss your options and develop a strategy to get you and your family’s lives back on track. Call, text, email, or fill out the form on our Contact Us page today.

Helping clients with mental health issues is not “fake news.” These are people with families and friends who love and care about them. They have real problems that are solvable. They can’t be lumped into a category of people who are the cause of mass killings in America. Life is much more nuanced than Trump makes it out to be. At The Criminal Law Team, we see ourselves as part of the solution. Our clients are not part of the problem.

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