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Will Greater Focus On Mental Health Reduce Gun Violence?

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is calling for more resources for mental health after the mass shooting at an outlet mall in Allen, Tex., in which a gunman killed at least eight people.

Abbott suggested that as the solution for the gun violence that has wracked the state. There’s little evidence increased funding for mental health services will reduce gun violence.

“What Texas is doing in a big-time way, we are working to address that anger and violence but going to its root cause, which is addressing the mental health problems behind it,” Abbott said. “People want a quick solution. The long-term solution here is to address the mental health issue.”

It’s one of many times that the Republican governor and his party have invoked mental health issues as the root cause of mass shootings, including last year’s shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, the 2019 El Paso Walmart shooting, the 2019 Midland-Odessa shooting, the 2018 Santa Fe High School shooting, and the 2017 First Baptist Church shooting, reports Vox.

Though the Texas legislature has allocated more than $1.5 billion to mental health services in the last few years, those services remain inaccessible to many in Texas, which faces a critical shortage of mental health professionals.

It’s not clear that addressing the state’s mental health crisis will have any meaningful impact on preventing gun violence, given the large body of research that shows most individuals with serious mental health issues never become violent. Republicans’ rhetoric on mental health issues — a playbook long practiced by gun-rights advocates —distracts from discussions that they are unwilling to have around gun control.

Many states are struggling to meet the demand for mental health resources after the COVID-19 pandemic, but Texas is faring worse than most. About 37 percent of Texas adults reported symptoms of anxiety or a depressive disorder, compared to the national average of about 32 percent, in a February 2023 Census Bureau survey.

Texas has fallen behind other states in terms of access to mental health care. Mental Health America, a nonprofit advocacy group, found that Texas had the worst access to mental health services overall as of 2022 when considering “access to insurance, access to treatment, quality and cost of insurance, access to special education, and workforce availability.”

As of 2023, 98 percent of the state’s 254 counties were at least partially designated as “mental health professional shortage areas” by the federal government.

The Texas legislature approved a $34 million bipartisan package to fund mental health services, especially for minors. It is a significant step, but might still not be enough to address historical funding shortfalls.

Though Abbott promised to fund mental health services after the Uvalde shooting last year, he diverted $211 million from the department that oversees mental health issues — more than from any other state agency — to fund his border enforcement program. The new bill won’t come close to making up for that diversion.

At the National Rifle Association annual meeting last month, former President Trump said of current violence levels, "This is not a gun problem. This is a mental health problem, this is a social problem, this is a cultural problem, this is a spiritual problem.”

A 2016 literature review by the American Psychiatric Association found that mass shooters with serious mental illness account for less than 1 percent of annual gun-related homicides. It also found that only about 3 percent of violent crimes and an even smaller share of those involving a firearm are committed by individuals with serious mental illness.

Blaming the gun violence epidemic on mental health issues obscures the much stronger link between gun ownership and gun deaths. One 2013 Boston University-led study found that for each percentage point increase in gun ownership at the household level, the state firearm homicide rate increased by 0.9 percent. More guns are purchased in Texas than any other state, and it also has a higher-than-average number of gun deaths.

There is concern that a Republican focus on mental health and violence could actually lead to less treatment because linking the two can reinforce the stigma around mental health issues.


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