In the last three years since Sandy Hook, over 160 school shootings have taken place. As we witness and grieve over each of these incidents, pundits and politicians continue to point the finger at America’s supposed mental health crisis. While it is necessary to have conversations about mental health in the United States and its implications on gun violence, we must also take care not to paint these issues with too broad a brush. As I have learned through my studies of mental health at Georgetown’s Nursing and Health School and through my gun violence prevention advocacy with Georgetown Against Gun Violence, it is important to understand the limits of the correlation.
Most dangerously, attributing the gun violence our country experiences to mental illness perpetuates the stereotype that most people with mental illness are violent. This could not be further from the truth. In reality, only 1 in 20 violent crimes are committed by an individual with a mental illness, and the majority of people with mental illnesses are not violent at all. In fact, a person with a mental illness is much more likely to be the victim of violence rather than the perpetrator.
Conversely, many seem to be unaware of the fact that the most common type of violence in which people with mental illness are engaged is directed inward. More than two thirds of the approximately 32,000 gun deaths that occur per year in the United States account for 50 percent of all successful suicides. Moreover, suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students, and surveys suggest that more than half of college students have had suicidal thoughts.
If we were able to get guns out of the hands of individuals prone to mental health crises, we might prevent a large portion of these deaths. Suicidal ideation is often intermittent and impulsive in times of crisis, but access to a firearm can greatly increase the danger of otherwise temporary suicidal thoughts. As young people who are disproportionately affected by gun violence, we need to advocate for our peers in both gun violence prevention and mental health access.
Alongside dispelling violent stereotypes about mental illness, we cannot turn a blind eye toward the many mental health problems that plague our country and campus. Too often, as I have seen in my advocacy work, the stigma against openly admitting to mental health crises prevents people from getting the help they need. Fewer than 1 in 3 adults with mental illness receive treatment in the United States.
The good news is that our university is taking steps to ensure that we are informed and prepared to deal with the intersection of mental health and gun violence. To make sure that our university is part of the solution, this semester, students from Georgetown Against Gun Violence along with administrators from the Office of the Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, the Office of Public Affairs, the Georgetown University Police Department, and the Department of Emergency Management and Operational Continuity are spearheading the Active Shooter Preparedness Public Awareness Campaign. This month, we are focusing on positive mental health awareness and the education of our community about common misperceptions about gun violence and people with mental illness.
Although we know that the best way to reduce the risk of violence among those prone to mental health crises includes a step-by-step process of early identification, appropriate treatment, education and support, and crisis intervention, too few students on the Hilltop take advantages of the resources that Georgetown provides.
As those of us who are leading the charge on the active shooter preparedness campaign know, many Georgetown students are simply unaware of or uncomfortable seeking the help they need. Resources for cultivating positive mental health are everywhere on this campus, from Counseling and Psychiatric Services, which offers free evaluations and consultations, to Health Education Services, which provides free counseling to students regarding substance abuse and sexual assault. Students can also reach out to members of Residential Living, such as Resident Assistants and Chaplains, as well as to GUPD, CAPS, and the Georgetown Emergency Response Medical Service on its 24/7 crisis phone hotlines. Our Threat Assessment program, which includes team members from diverse institutions across the university, also monitors individuals identified by peers, staff or faculty to be at risk.
We as members of the Georgetown community need to remember the Jesuit motto of “cura personalis”— care of the whole person — and take responsibility to seek the resources we need and to dispel misperceptions regarding mental illness.
This is why I hope that students across Georgetown will pay attention during the month of February to the advocacy that the team at the Active Shooter Preparedness Campaign is taking on the intersection of mental illness and gun violence. We can go a long way towards normalizing seeking help for mental health crises, dispelling dangerous misperceptions and saving lives across this country.
Annabel Schneider is a junior in the School of Nursing and Health Studies.
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