Health and Medicine Neuroscience

Study Examines Mental Illness and Gun Violence

mental illness

People who have serious mental illnesses that use guns in order to commit suicide are in many cases legally eligible to purchase guns even when they have a past record of involuntary mental health examinations and even hospitalizations.

A study by Duke University Medical Center has released a study which was published in the June issue of Health Affairs journal looking closer at gun use, violent crime and suicide among 81,704 people who were diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depression. The data focused on individuals in Florida’s Miami-Dade and Pinellas counties ranging from the years 2002 to 2012.

During the timeframe of the study, 254 subjects committed suicide, which is just about four times the average suicide rate for the general adult population in Florida. Of the 50 people who used guns to kill themselves, 72 percent were legally able to have guns at the time of their deaths. The remaining 28 percent were not supposed to have the weapons but were able to get their hands on one in order to take their lives.

While the study focuses mainly on adults who are involved in the public behavioral health system, the findings do offer guidelines for both federal and state levels that can help customize legal restrictions for individuals who may be suffering from mental disorders. The study focused closely on court and health records in order to examine gun rights of those with serious mental health conditions and whether or not limits on their access to guns would reduce violent crimes and even suicides.

Lead author Jeffrey W. Swanson says there is a lot of focus on people with mental illness in discussions of gun violence prevention and that is both a right thing and a wrong thing. He believes federal gun regulations related to mental illness prohibit lots of people from accessing firearms when they are not violent or will not become violent. At the very same time, they are having trouble identifying people who will act out or become suicidal. With the data from the study, criteria are improved for restrictions that may actually reduce gun violence and also carefully balance between risk and human rights.

Data from the study shows a slightly higher than average violent crime arrest rate among assaults, but found that their use of guns in the crimes (13 percent of the time) was actually lower than in a similar population from the same community (24 percent). Of the arrests for violent gun-related crimes tracked in the study, two-thirds involved adults who were already restricted from having guns. This means there are concerns with background checks and enforcement of gun laws, which could save lives in many states. Things such as blocking the sales of new guns by federally licensed dealers to people who have been involuntarily held during a mental health crisis.

Around 26 percent of people within the study had been involuntarily held for a mental health evaluation during a crisis but were still able to own or buy guns under Florida laws during the time. Swanson says these people were already identified during a mental health crisis but had not been committed. The team was aware that they were at an increased risk of harming either themselves or others, but unfortunately these are often lost public health opportunities in many states.

After the study, Florida enacted a law that would prevent the sale of guns to people who had a mental health crisis, but were not committed against their will. Swanson says the law does not address the problem of guns that are within easy reach. Some states, such as California, allow law enforcement to remove existing weapons from people they believe are at a high risk of harming themselves or others.