A Mental Health Database Is Stigmatizing, Harmful & Not The Answer To Gun Violence

by Lux Alptraum
Medical Records folder archive organized in the file cabinet all in a row

In this op-ed, writer Lux Alptraum explains why the call to make a mental health database to prevent guns from being purchased by people living with mental illness is stigmatizing and harmful.

In the wake of multiple mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, where more than 30 people were killed, various politicians have stepped forward to offer pathways to a less violent future. Among them is New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose “Make America Safer” pledge outlines several steps toward reducing gun violence in the United States.

Some of Cuomo’s suggestions — like banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, or passing universal background checks — are relatively uncontroversial among gun control supporters. But one item on the list has caused a great deal of backlash: a proposal to "create a mental health data base to prevent the dangerously mentally ill from purchasing a firearm."

At first glance, this may seem like a reasonable suggestion. If someone’s mental health puts them at an elevated risk of violence or aggression, it makes sense to bar them from purchasing weapons. Federal law already prohibits people who have been involuntarily committed to a mental institution or have been determined by a court to be a danger to themselves or others from buying a gun. And in fact, New York already has a database like this in the state. Yet the connection between mental illness and mass shootings is dubious at best, and for many people living with mental illness, a database like this could cause far more harm than good.

It is one thing to publicly disclose your diagnosis yourself, in a way that provides nuance and context to your struggle. It is wholly another to have that choice and framing taken from you.

Contrary to popular belief, having a mental illness does not increase a person’s propensity for violence; it’s actually more likely to increase one’s risk of being a victim of violence. There are plenty of perfectly peaceful people who live with mental illness — even disorders like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and borderline personality disorder aren’t guaranteed to spark a violent rampage. With proper treatment, people with mental illness can thrive and live functional, happy lives. A diagnosis is not a destiny, it’s just a challenge that requires people to pay closer attention and focus to their mental wellness as they move through the world.

What does cause problems for people with mental illness, however, is the heavy amount of stigma that surrounds a diagnosis. That stigma makes many of us uncomfortable openly discussing our mental health, and in some cases, even makes us avoid seeking treatment or getting a proper diagnosis. Over the past few years, we’ve seen a massive reduction in the stigma surrounding mental illness, as public figures like Saturday Night Live's Pete Davidson have opened up about their diagnoses. And art that explores mental illness in a nuanced manner, like Esme Wang’s essay collection The Collected Schizophrenias and the CW show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, has been released to great acclaim.

But as politicians race to draw misleading connections between mass shootings and mental illness, that stigma only stands to increase. Instead of understanding people who live with schizophrenia or borderline personality disorder as people who are managing a chronic illness, we’re encouraged to envision them as ticking time bombs that could go off at any moment. It’s a framing that dehumanizes people who have mental illness, and it also makes people unwilling to consider the possibility that they might be living with mental illness.

Though a mental health database purports to protect people from the threat of violence, it is far more likely to cause harm to people living with mental illness. It is one thing to publicly disclose your diagnosis yourself in a way that provides nuance and context to your struggle. It is wholly another to have that choice and framing taken from you. I’ve written multiple essays about my struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder, but the idea that I could be forced to register with the government as someone with OCD makes me incredibly uncomfortable. I can only imagine that discomfort is far, far worse for people living with conditions that are significantly more stigmatized.

Even when the database is limited only to those presumed to be “dangerous,” who gets to determine what makes a person “dangerous?" Is it a history of violent behavior or just a propensity to violent thoughts? Might someone with no record of violence against others wind up in the database purely on the basis of their diagnosis? And if so, then what motivation would someone have to seek help for a “dangerous” mental illness in a country where the president has already called for the involuntary commitment of some “mentally disturbed individuals”?

By increasing the burden of being open and honest about our mental health, politicians like Cuomo serve only to discourage the most vulnerable among us from seeking help. Instead of helping to prevent mass shootings, a plan like this will only inflict harm and suffering on people who are in need of support.