Once again, as the nation reels in the aftermath of back-to-back mass shootings, mental health is a focus of discussion, with President Donald Trump on Wednesday saying of the perpetrators: “These are people that are really mentally ill, mentally disturbed.”
“It’s a mental problem,” Trump said — echoing comments by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and others — before flying to Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, cities where gunmen killed 31 people and injured dozens more in two separate shooting sprees over the weekend.
But Coloradans living with mental illnesses say such comments further stigmatize them, while shifting the conversation away from topics such as guns and racism. Medical experts agree.
“It’s like I’m being painted with a broad brush,” said Denver resident Karisa Hunt, who said she has anxiety and depression.
“It’s already something I don’t disclose to people unless I need to, and now I feel like I want to do it even less,” she said. “I’m the least likely person in the world to hurt anyone.”
The first of the two shootings, Saturday at a Walmart in El Paso, is being investigated by the FBI as a hate-motivated domestic-terror case as authorities work to confirm a racist, anti-immigrant manifesto was posted online by the suspect.
The shooting that followed early Sunday in Dayton does not have a known racial motivation, investigators have said, but federal authorities are looking into evidence the shooter researched “violent ideologies” before the attack.
Most individuals with mental illnesses are not violent, mental health experts said, adding that they are more likely to be targets of violence than perpetrators.
“When these kind of instances happen, our conversations really shouldn’t be about mental illness, they should be about the messages that people are getting about other people,” said Sarah Davidon, research director with Mental Health Colorado. “The messages people are getting about immigration, about the acceptability of intolerance.”
As the president arrived in Dayton on Wednesday, protesters gathered to denounce his rhetoric, which they say has inflamed racial tension in the country and may have influenced the shooting in El Paso — allegations Trump has denied.
When racially driven attacks occur, Davidon said, it “creates a culture of fear for many people.”
Rhetoric that suggests those with a mental illness are violent not only stigmatizes them, but can prevent people from getting needed treatment, the American Psychiatric Association said in a statement. The association has called for action to address “the public health epidemic” of gun-related injuries and deaths, including more comprehensive background checks for those purchasing firearms
More than 39,000 individuals died from gun-related injuries in 2017. Suicide was the leading cause of those deaths, followed by homicide, according to a recent report by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A Denver man active in state politics spoke about his personal experience with bipolar disorder on condition of anonymity because of the stigma that he said can come with doing so. The finger-pointing at mental illness after last weekend’s mass tragedies is “insulting to all the people who struggle with mental health issues,” he said.
Mental health and gun violence are connected, he said, but not the way it’s being portrayed: “The reason I don’t own a firearm is that despite being healthy today, I probably would have used it on myself in the last 15 years in one of my worst moments.”
Trump has signaled support for red-flag laws, such as the one recently passed by Colorado that gives judges the ability to temporarily remove guns from people believed to be at high risk of harming themselves or others.
But Trump’s comments regarding mental health have struck a nerve with those living with such illnesses, who say the discussion harms those with a mental illness.
“It just makes you feel less worthwhile than other people,” said Sam Cannon, an attorney in Fort Collins who has bipolar disorder, adding that such discourse contributes to the idea that the public should be scared of those with mental illness.
Hunt said she doesn’t like fireworks on the Fourth of July because they sound too much like gunshots and can cause her to have a panic attack
“I’m not even a danger to myself most days and all the finger-pointing and everybody saying mental illness is what’s causing this makes it worse for me,” Hunt said. “It adds to my anxiety.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.