KHI News Service

Mental health advocates urge evidence-based approach to curbing violence

By Jim McLean | January 24, 2013

Advocates for mentally ill Kansans said today that policies aimed at preventing mass shootings and other acts of violence should be based on evidence not inaccurate generalizations and stereotypes.

Pointing to a 2011 report from the Harvard Medical School, the advocates said large percentages of Americans are misinformed about the link between mental illness and violence.

A 2006 survey found that 60 percent of Americans thought that people with schizophrenia were likely to act violently toward someone else, while 32 percent thought that people with major depression were likely to do so.

A review of the research, the report said, indicated that while a “sub-set of people with psychiatric disorders commit assaults and violent crimes,” most individuals with mental illnesses are not violent.

Different factors

“The research goes on to show that there are many different factors that drive individuals to act out violently,” said Mike Oxford, executive director of the Topeka Independent Living Center.

Substance abuse is often a primary factor, according to the research cited. One study found that 31 percent of people who had both substance abuse and psychiatric disorders committed at least one act of violence in a year. Other studies generated similar results. One found that more than 27 percent of people convicted of at least one violent crime between 1973 and 2006 had histories of substance abuse and suffered from schizophrenia. Approximately 8 percent suffered from schizophrenia alone and 5.1 percent were members of the general public with no known mental health or substance abuse problems.

“When violence does occur, it’s usually because something has gone terribly wrong in the mental health care system,” said Rick Cagan, executive director of the Kansas chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Falling through the cracks

Often what goes wrong, Cagan said, is that people with serious mental illnesses fall through the cracks of an inadequate mental health system. He said one-third of people who need help don’t get it in time to avert a crisis.

“We need to fix our mental health care system,” Cagan said. “It’s broken. The challenge is to build a new system focusing on prevention, early screening, diagnosis and treatment.”

In an opinion piece written after the Newtown, Conn. shootings, Michael Hammond, executive director of the Association of Community Mental Health Centers of Kansas, called on legislators to restore $15 million cut from the centers’ budgets since 2008.

Cagan said Gov. Sam Brownback’s proposal to shift existing resources to provide more intensive services to people who have had “frequent” encounters with police or multiple admissions to a state mental hospital won’t fix the system.


Rocky Nichols, director of the Disability Rights Center of Kansas, said he was concerned that some policy makers who talk about mental health reforms really were more interested in shifting the focus away from calls for stricter gun control laws.

The former Democratic legislator said though he no longer is subjected to National Rifle Association lobbying or privy to information he received from the group when he was a NRA member, “I am really concerned that the debate is being manipulated and shifted towards trying to scapegoat a class in society.”

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