Mental Health is More Than a Sound Bite
In the wake of mass shootings, we all have heard the same sound bite: state governors and legislators, congressional representatives and senators, and more, all blaming “mental health issues” for spreading the carnage.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott typifies what has become a platitude:
“Anybody who shoots somebody else has a mental health challenge. Period. We as a government need to find a way to target that mental health challenge and to do something about it.” --(Greg Abbott, May, 2022)
Although Abbott governs a state that seems proud of its gun purchasing and ownership laws, he is not alone in blaming mental health to deflect focus from the weapons of “fast” destruction that are essential to these tragedies. Check the media coverage following any mass shooting if you aren’t sure.
But, for a moment, assume that Abbott and all those politicians are right—mass shootings are about mental illness. Wouldn’t it follow that they would rush to provide communities with greater resources to support mental health services, especially since the growth of mass shootings seems to have converged with a pandemic to create the greatest demand for mental health services in history?
Well, sticking with Texas, that same governor transferred $211 million away from the state’s mental health support programs in 2022 to fund Texas National Guard troops at the Mexican border. Conceding that the troops were necessary, would a governor who believes his own quote (see above) redirect a substantial amount of his state’s mental health resources to law enforcement?
The answer is the “mental health challenge” quote is just a sound bite … nothing more. It is designed to redirect the inquiry away from guns. And, to be fair, media people who don’t ask the next question after it--“What do you plan to do to increase access to mental health resources to reduce mass shootings?”—can be counted as complicit in the success of the “just a bite” tactic.
What can be done? Here are three suggestions for political and governmental leaders who use “the mental health bite” but, quite possibly, don’t know what the next steps can be:
- Find out what resources behavioral health organizations need to serve their communities, and provide them.
- Prioritize support for behavioral health issues like we support physical health issues.
- Since, these days, every issue is about counting votes, remember that mental illness attacks every constituency, and, supporting behavioral health needs has the opportunity to expand any candidate’s base.
Even ignoring the connection between mass shootings and mental health, the time is now to start expanding the conversation. Today, people can have conversations about mental health without putting a hand in front of their mouths or stepping out to the hallway. That’s progress. Maybe those elected leaders using “the bite” are inadvertently opening the door to more necessary, serious discussions about supporting mental health.
And, maybe, those conversations can be advanced beyond “the bite” by jumping into it ourselves. It’s worth a try. And we don’t have to wait for the next mass shooting.