“It seems there is nothing like a mass shooting to suddenly spark political interest in mental health,” John Oliver says in his latest Last Week Tonight report, referencing the endless arguments about gun control/mental illness circulating after the Oregon tragedy, the 264th mass shooting of the year. Given that politicians like Mike Huckabee, Ben Carson and Donald Trump have pegged this shooting epidemic to a broken mental health system, Oliver obliges and examines the issue in depth.
But there’s a catch: “The aftermath of a mass shooting might actually be the worst time to talk about mental health,” he argues. “Because, for the record, the vast majority of mentally ill people are non-violent. And the vast majority of gun violence is committed by non-mentally ill people.” The host cites a February 2015 report by the American Journal of Public Health, which states that “fewer than 5 percent of the 120,000 gun-related killings … were perpetrated by people diagnosed with mental illness.”
“In fact, mentally ill people are far likelier to be the victims of violence rather than the perpetrators,” he continues. “So the fact we tend to only discuss mental health in a mass shooting context is deeply misleading.”
Oliver reports that, “in 2013, an estimated 43.8 million American adults dealt with a mental illness.” And as some presidential hopefuls have observed, our system for helping these people is shattered. In 2009, The Associated Press reported that “nearly 125,000 young and middle-aged adults with serious mental illness lived in U.S. nursing homes” the previous year. Some states have been involved in “Greyhound therapy,” in which patients are discharged too soon and supplied with a one-way bus ticket to another city.
According to another depressing report, there are 10 times more people in jail than in state-funded psychiatric centers. “That is terrible,” Oliver says. “Finding out jails are our largest provider of mentally health treatment is like finding out Lil Wayne lyrics are our greatest source of sexual education.”
Some police departments have implemented “crisis intervention programs” intended to help direct those with mental health issues into treatment rather than prison. Unfortunately, only 15 percent of police agencies have utilized them. “Our whole system needs a massive overhaul,” Oliver says. But that won’t be easy because of the “clusterfuck” of American agencies devoted to mental health.
“We, as a society, have to figure out how to fund [these programs],” he says. “Not just because it makes fiscal sense but because it would save lives. And if I remember rightly, there are some politicians who claim to be pretty motivated to address this problem … If we’re going to constantly use mentally ill people to dodge conversations about gun control then the very least we owe them is a fucking plan.”