"Mental Illness" and Guns are Part of White Racist Dysfunction, Not Just Individual Access to Health Care
And economic inequality, racism and gun fetishism are all aspect of that social dysfunction
The Republican talking point is now all about school shootings and other mass shootings being a “mental health” problem, as Texas Gov. Greg Abbot jumped on the talking point. The point of course is to claim that guns are not the cause of more violence but is just the result of “bad apple” individuals - which is clearly untrue as I highlighted this past Wednesday in detailing the consistent research showing more gun deaths follow more guns in a country or state. Many of the mass shooters, including the one in Uvalde, have had no clear record of mental illness, so the talking point fails on the evidence.
Of course, as news reports detailed, Abbott (like other Republicans) has consistently cut money to support people with mental illness and refused to expand Medicaid to make health care more available.
As I touched on in my piece last Wednesday and will discuss in more depth below, “mental health” is not merely individual health problems but generally reflects broader social dysfunction as well. However, even if we focus in on guns and “mental health”, it’s impossible to separate that from broader problems of white racist culture reflected in the multiple acts of terrorism targeting communities of color.
At its heart, gun culture in the US is made up overwhelmingly of white people, particularly white people expressing racist views. Using data from the General Social Survey (GSS) on gun ownership, we can differentiate between whites who agree that economic inequality between whites and blacks is mainly due to discrimination and those that deny discrimination plays a significant role in that inequality. What we find is those white adults who deny that racism is a significant factor in our society own 61% of all guns and they are the only group where a majority own a gun.
GSS also provides data on people self-reporting the number of days that they had “poor mental health.” If you look at those reporting 10 or more days of poor mental health in the last month, this adds up to a total of roughly 13 million adults. For anyone worrying about individual mental health and guns, this is doubtless who we should be focusing on. And whites who deny racism is a significant source of economic inequality are a disproportionate percentage of those who still own guns and report serious mental health issues - adding up to over 8.8 million adults and two-thirds of all guns owned by those with mental health issues. So if the issue is mental health, the Republicans need to disarm or at least get counseling for a massive portion of their political base.
Mental Illness is Part of Broader Social Dysfunction
But as I noted at the end of my piece last week, invoking the mantra of “mental illness” does not even mean we’ve therefore consigned the issue to one of individual dysfunction. Mental illness itself reflects broader dysfunctions in society, largely greater breakdowns in social cohesion often related to economic and social inequality. Data reflects that mental illness is tightly correlated with that inequality, putting a lie to the idea that it’s some kind of purely familial or biological failing (even if there are some documented biological factors that make particular individuals more likely to be triggered by social dysfunction).
And the correlation between economic inequality and mental illness parallels similar correlations to murder in general (not just mass shootings), drug use in general and a host of other social dysfunctions.
So if Republicans want to explain away school shootings as just the result of mental illness, they need to abandon most of the rest of their anti-crime rhetoric as well, since it all seems rooted in broader social factors. However, the reality is that mental illness is less a cause of violence in general (since most with mental illness are not violent) but that mental illness, violence, drug abuse and other anti-social behavior are being driven by the broader inequality and social divisions that Republicans in particular perpetuate through their economic policies.
Yes, there are helpful individual treatments for mental illness to deal with its manifestation in individuals, just as there are crime control methods to deal with the individual violence unleashed by social dysfunction. Still, the message of the data is that is treating the symptoms of the problem, not the cause.
There is of course nothing new in this observation. One of the founding texts of modern social science research is Emile Durkheim’s Suicide, which shocked the intellectual world when published in the late 19th century in showing that what seemed to be a manifestation of individual social pain in fact reflected broader social phenomena largely related to the tightness of social bonds in a community, where rapid, unequal economic change was a key factor in driving suicide. But his point was that if some individuals engaged in the extreme act of suicide, many others were suffering from the broader impacts of a lack of social cohesion, what Durkheim called anomie.
Racism is a Key Aspect of Social Dysfunction in America
But anomie does not exist in the abstract. Where America’s history of chronic racism comes into play is in how that alienation manifests and sharply divides our society between those who deny that racism exists versus those who recognize it. As I argued in my piece last year, Organizing the Alienated, we basically have to look at Trumpism as a manifestation of alienation marinated in the white supremacy that Trump built his movement on. Trumpism is not caused by mental illness but is the result of the same forces, with the addition of racism shaping its form.
That dysfunctional alienation is reflected in the very fact that Trumpist communities have engaged in a form of mass suicide in resisting masks and vaccination, leading to counties voting for Trump having far higher Covid death rates than Dem-voting counties. This follows earlier research showing Trump-voting counties had far higher levels of illness generally than Dem-voting communities (even adjusting for age and other demographic factors) and similarly have had far higher opioid abuse levels than Dem-voting areas.
Overall, studies showed that movement towards Trump among white voters was greatest where people had the fewest social connections. As I highlighted in data from the General Social Survey, whites with fewer friends (measured as socializing either only a few times a year or never) were more likely to have voted for Trump compared to four years earlier.
This movement to Trump by those with few friends was particularly pronounced among whites who denied discrimination was an important cause of economic differences between whites and blacks.
If you add in the factor of ten or more days of self-reported mental health problems, white racist loners with mental health issues voted for Trump at a 90% rate (yes, the scary group from which some significant portions of mass shooters have in fact emerged).
All of this gets reflected in the US gun culture which is such an outlier among developed nations. As the numbers above reflect, the very desire to own guns disproportionately reflects this white racist dysfunction in our nation. Expanding spending on mental health care can help in individual cases but it is delusional to think it’s enough to address the stark economic and racial divides that are driving gun culture and the mass death it leaves in its wake.
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