You know the names: Columbine. Virginia Tech. Sandy Hook. Parkland. Santa Fe. And now Robb Elementary. Once known only as places where parents would send their children to learn and play, these schools now and forever exist beneath the shadow of unspeakable tragedy and mass death.
Another week has passed in America, which means we must collectively mourn another horrific tragedy of gun violence. And while this moment calls for action, we are already seeing elected officials dig in on what they feel is the root cause of yet another mass casualty shooting in the United States—and just the latest one that has robbed families of their youngest, most innocent members.
I have been working in the mental health field for two decades. I am trained as a clinical psychologist, and currently lead a national foundation focused on mental health and addiction. For years I have been an outspoken advocate for how we as a nation need to better prioritize these areas. And while mental health and addiction have indeed gotten more attention in recent years, it’s sometimes the type of attention that bothers me the most.
This brings us back to the moment, and to the fact that mental health has become a scapegoat, an easy talking point for politicians, pundits, and firearms lobbyists to use to distract us from deeper issues. The problem with this is that it’s just wrong. The evidence does not suggest that mental illness causes gun violence. Full stop. And paradoxically enough, it’s these same elected officials who have also chosen to not do anything to help mental health even as they point their finger at it as the problem.
In the wake of the shooting at Robb Elementary, Texas Gov. Greg Abbot has used mental health as his dominant explanatory model for why the shooting occurred. Ironically, Texas is one of the 12 states that has not chosen to expand Medicaid, largely under Abbot’s watch. And when you look at the data and see how Medicaid is the largest payer for mental health and addiction services, it seems that if the governor really cared about the issue, he would have done something about that long ago.
Which brings me to a much larger point.
Too many elected officials—who tend to be conservative and Republican—continue to use an age-old strategy of giving lip service without taking any action to mitigate the impact of mental illness or gun violence. Or even more damning, blaming an issue—in this case mental health—as the cause of our problems without acknowledging that their policy decisions have actually made conditions worse.
It is, after all, these same elected leaders who refuse to back ample funding for social programs that would improve the physical and emotional well-being of all Americans. Studies have shown that one-quarter of Americans cannot afford housing. The coronavirus pandemic, with its record-high job layoffs and furloughs, brought this into stark focus as millions of individuals and families struggled to pay their monthly rent. Community factors like housing and job security are proven to have a substantial impact on mental health. Investment in affordable housing and other social services to provide relief to our most vulnerable citizens is the least that these policymakers can do.
If these leaders were truly worried about mental health, they could have, and would have done something about it long ago. We have had an anemic community based mental health system in this country for decades. People struggle, fall through the cracks, and spend all their time and energy searching and waiting for help that often never materializes. And after all that, inaction remains the default response.
We as a country need to hold these elected officials accountable. Living through the past two years of the pandemic has put mental health on all our radars, albeit in very different ways. We have all felt increased pressures, but even before COVID, there was a massive mental health and addiction problem that was simply ignored.
Deaths of despair—those from drug overdose, alcohol abuse, and suicide—continue to grow uncontrollably with more than 186,000 lives lost in 2020 alone to one of these three issues. A person died every three minutes. Our children suffered the most, with teens seeing a 78 percent increase in drug-induced deaths, as well as an increase in suicide. Children’s hospitals and pediatric societies declared a nationwide start of emergency for mental health. But still, we did not move to action.
Throughout 2020, the Trump administration warned that COVID-related shutdowns would drive deaths of despair and used related fear tactics as a primary reason to reopen the country. While the pandemic did exacerbate drug use, alcoholism, and loneliness, the former president and his administration failed to pass—or even promote—policies to mitigate the looming mental health crisis. It was a convenient talking point that led to no action despite mental health being a bipartisan issue.
Why? It’s not because we haven’t been presented with proven solutions. It’s because we live under a system of government that’s just as fractured as our health care system; political ideology frequently eclipses science-backed evidence, and consolidation and retention of political power too often takes precedence over public good. At the federal, state, and local levels, we elect our leaders to be servants of the people, and to represent the best and broadest interests of their constituents. But when we see that, from sea to shining sea, our entire country is experiencing rising rates of mental distress, alcoholism, drug overdoses, and suicide, at what point can we ask, who are these leaders really serving? Action has not been taken and we all suffer.
As we all know, 2022 is a midterm year, with the chance for Americans to cast their votes for members of their state’s Senate and House of Representatives. Exercise your right to vote but do so with purpose. Don’t simply cast a vote along your traditional party lines. Look at each candidate’s public statements and their views on mental health, no matter their political party.
What is their stance on gun safety? These answers will help give insight into how they likely will—or will not—act when these issues are inevitably brought to the floors for a legislative vote.
As a parent, I cannot fathom what the families of the Uvalde shooting victims are going through, and my heart aches for them, and for the countless others whose lives were taken far too soon. We owe it to all of them to get this right and to hold our elected officials accountable for their rhetoric and inaction. Let’s move forward to ensure that today’s students become tomorrow’s leaders, not tomorrow’s headlines.