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On Our Minds is the name of KERA's mental health news initiative. The station began focusing on the issue in 2013, after the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Coverage is funded in part by the Donna Wilhelm Family Fund and Cigna.

After El Paso Shooting, Experts Say Mental Illness Is Not To Blame For Gun Violence

Melody Stout and Hannah Payan comfort each other during a vigil Saturday night for victims of the El Paso shooting.
Associated Press
Melody Stout and Hannah Payan comfort each other during a vigil Saturday night for victims of the El Paso shooting.

Gov. Greg Abbott says Texas needs to do a better job of addressing its mental health care challenges after a deadly mass shooting at an El Paso Walmart.

Speaking at a press conference after the shooting, Abbott said the state has enacted new legislation in the wake of last year's shooting at Santa Fe High School outside of Houston. The governor held a series of roundtables at the Capitol in 2018 aimed at strengthening student safety.

"During that time we did not, as far as I know, evaluate for and plan for an incident like this," Abbott said. "That said, I can tell you that perhaps the most profound and agreed upon issue that came out of all of those hearings was the need for the state and for society to do a better job of dealing with challenging mental health based issues."

The governor said mental health "is a large contributor to any type of violence or shooting violence." After the El Paso shooting, Abbott plans to hold more roundtablesto consider additional legislative action. The governor has also dedicated $5 million in assistance, which will help fund mental health services in El Paso. 

"The conversation about increased mental health care is great - the accusations are not," says John Dornheim with the North Texas chapter of NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Dornheim says many people are in El Paso are in immediate need of mental health care, but he says in the aftermath of a mass shooting, lawmakers shouldn't immediately blame mental illness.

"I think it's an easy out for politicians, instead of looking at the root of where a lot of these people have had violent tendencies maybe their whole lives," Dornheim says. "A lot of times, people look at people who are just antisocial and mean and decide that they're mentally ill, and there's a big difference."

Dornheim says it's problematic to associate mental illness with violence because it could make people who need care even more hesitant to seek treatment.

"We have non-mental health professionals deciding who's mentally [ill] or not," he says, "and that's where the problem comes because there's enough stigma in the world, and then if you start adding on saying, 'Well if you're mentally ill, you're violent,' would you want to get care?" 

NAMI estimates one in fiveAmerican adults is living with a mental illness, which can mean anything from anxiety and depression to schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. 

Rosie Phillips Davis, president of the American Psychological Association, said in a statement that blaming gun violence on mental illness is unfounded and can reinforce stigma about these conditions.

“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," she said. "The rates of mental illness are roughly the same around the world, yet other countries are not experiencing these traumatic events as often as we face them. One critical factor is access to, and the lethality of, the weapons that are being used in these crimes. Adding racism, intolerance and bigotry to the mix is a recipe for disaster."

Research has shown most people living with serious mental illness are never violent. Last year, the FBI released a studyof 63 active shooters. It found just 25% had been diagnosed with a mental illness, and the bureau says the idea that all active shooters are mentally ill is "misleading and unhelpful." 

Jeff Temple, a professor with the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, says drawing such associations in the wake of mass shootings could make people hesitant to seek treatment for mental health conditions. Temple co-authored a studywhich found mental illness is not to blame for gun violence.

"When something like El Paso happens, the first thing people jump to is, 'Man, that guy must have been insane,'" Temple said. "'He must have had a mental illness.' Well, maybe not. Maybe it is something else going on. Maybe there's some hostility. Maybe there's some anger."

Temple's study examined mental illness symptoms and personality traits and found people with a hostile demeanor were about three and a half times more likely to have threatened someone with a gun.

"What we found was that overall, mental health symptoms were unrelated to both carrying a gun and threatening someone with a gun," he said.

In the end, Temple said the risk of violence comes down to access to firearms. The study found people with access were 18 times more likely to have threatened someone with a gun.

"By and large, it seems to be, that person has access to guns," Temple said, "and that is the common factor in all shootings." 

Syeda Hasan is the Elections Editor and Reporter at KERA. Before moving into that role, she covered mental health at the station. A Houston native, her journalism career has taken her to public radio newsrooms around Texas.