Research shows that people living with mental health issues are more likely to be victims of a violent crime as opposed to the ones committing them. Yet a formulaic response tends to follow tragedies: Mental illness is bad and it’s what caused this to happen.
The mass shooting at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, on Sunday is no exception to the rule. A day after the tragedy, President Donald Trump said that mental illness, not the issue of gun control, was to blame for that massacre that killed 26 people.
“This isn’t a guns situation,” Trump said during his visit to Japan. “This is a mental health problem at the highest level. It’s a very, very sad event.”
A 2012 police report shows the gunman, Devin Kelley, did escape from a mental health facility where he was staying following being charged in a military court for assaulting his wife and stepson, the New York Times reported. And it is true that in some cases mental health could play a role in violent situations.
But experts say a blanket statements about mental health in these cases does a disservice. Drawing a simplistic connection between mental illness and violence sends the wrong message about psychological disorders and stigmatizes millions of people who live with mental health conditions.
“It’s important not to link these kinds of heinous crimes with mental illness unless one knows for sure what was a cause and effect,” Dr. Michelle Riba, the associate director at the University of Michigan’s Comprehensive Depression Center, told HuffPost. “Most people with mental illness are wonderful citizens and have an illness that’s treatable. They don’t behave in a way that leads to what happened [in Texas].”
The president is hardly alone in making the association ― even the media has a tendency to perpetuate a similar idea. A 2016 Johns Hopkins University study found that more than a third of all news stories about mental health conditions were linked with violence toward other people. This figure doesn’t accurately reflect the actual rates of violence where mental illness is involved.
Assigning blanketed blame to mental illness can have long-term consequences, Riba said. It further alienates people with mental health issues and makes them feel like their experience isn’t understood. That could ultimately lead them to not reach out for help: Research shows negative attitudes surrounding mental illness often prevent people from seeking treatment.
We chatted with Riba and gathered other advice on what to do to help mitigate the effects of mental health stigma. If you’re living with a mental health issue, here’s how to take care of yourself today (and moving forward):
Reach out to someone you trust.
This could be a family member, friend or significant other. Leaning on people who love and support you is vital during times of distress, Riba said.
“Ask people to have a conversation about how you’re feeling,” she said. “Getting some input from people you trust and value is helpful.”
Take social media and news breaks if you need them.
Riba said that staying informed and plugging into uplifting resources can be critical when you’re feeling alienated. However, it’s also important to take breaks. Research shows negative news can have a damaging effect on mental health. It’s okay to unplug from the noise for a little while.
Do a calming activity.
Working out ― even if it’s just going for a long walk ― can do wonders for your mental wellbeing. Research shows physical activity can boost your mood, and taking a stroll in nature has been shown to reduce symptoms of depression. Not in the mood to exercise? Try one of these other expert-backed self-care activities.
Check in with a professional.
If you’re already in therapy, Riba recommends reaching out to your therapist if the rhetoric is starting to bother you. If you’re not currently seeking treatment, consider contacting a professional if your well-being is at stake.
“Make an appointment to talk about this,” Riba said. “It’s important to straighten out these kinds of feelings and issues with a clinician.”
Remember that your condition is not a character flaw.
Mental health is just as important as physical health. Take a moment to remind yourself that having a mental illness doesn’t make you a bad person, nor does it define you, Riba said.
“Mental illness is like any other health condition,” she stressed. “It’s treatable and people with the conditions have quality lives.”
This piece has been updated to reflect the recent reports that Kelley escaped from a mental health facility in 2012.