Conservative media outlets are using the mass shooting in a Charleston, South Carolina, church to push myths about guns and criticize President Obama for highlighting the need for responsible gun safety legislation.
CNN anchor Alisyn Camerota posited that "mental illness" may "lead to violence" while discussing a recent shooting in Dallas, a problematic framing of mental health issues that feeds false stigmas and ignores research debunking the notion of a direct causal link between mental health and violence.
James Boulware attacked Dallas police headquarters with a gun before fleeing in an armored van on June 13. He was killed after a brief standoff with police, and his relatives are now saying Boulware had a history of mental health issues.
Discussing the Dallas shooting on June 15, CNN's Alisyn Camerota implied there may be a direct connection between mental health issues and violence, asking her guest, "Do you see this as just another sad case of someone's mental illness leading to violence?" Citing the Aurora, CO and Newtown, CT shootings, Camerota then said, "We hate to give the impression that mental illness leads to violence, but does mental illness lead to violence, like in these cases?"
But there is no evidence of a direct connection between mental health and violence -- A 2013 report from The Consortium for Risk-Based Firearm Policy explained how most people with mental health issues are "more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence," noting that only about 4 percent of violence in the United states "is attributable to mental illness.":
Many recent gun violence prevention policy discussions have assumed a direct causal connection between mental illness and violence. The research evidence suggests that violence has many interacting causes, and that mental illness alone very rarely causes violence.
Importantly, only a very small proportion of violence in the United States - about 4% - is attributable to mental illness.
According to the Consortium, only under very limited circumstances does a link exist between "individuals with serious mental illness" and violence:
Most people with serious mental illness - which includes conditions such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder - are never violent toward others, and are in fact more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence. However, research suggests that small subgroups of individuals with serious mental illness, at certain times, such as the period surrounding a psychiatric hospitalization or the first episode of psychosis, are at elevated risk of violence. In addition, the population with serious mental illness experiences high rates of co-occurring substance use, an important risk factor for violent behavior in the general population.
Out of the Consortium report grew the Gun Violence Restraining Order proposal, which would allow family members of a "person who is at an elevated risk of harm to self and/or others to petition a court to temporarily remove firearms from that individual."
Speculation like Camerota's feeds into the misperception that people with mental health issues are inherently violent, a myth about which the public is already misinformed. This misunderstanding is often fueled by entertainment and news media that mostly portray such people as dangerous, leading to widespread stigma and discrimination.
The Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan criticizes the "Trigger-Happy Generation" in her latest column, adding to the increasingly wide range of media figures questioning the merits of "safe spaces" and "trigger warnings" on college campuses. But her attacks in particular reveal a troubling element largely missing from this debate: an honest assessment of the crisis of mental health support for students.
Trigger warnings and safe spaces, in theory, attempt to warn and shield students from material that might remind them of past trauma or reinforce a hostile experience. In practice, they take on many different forms, giving ammunition to both defenders and critics who often see them as overzealous attempts to shield students from reality.
In her May 21 column, Noonan places herself squarely in the critics' camp, labeling on-campus advocacy for safe spaces and trigger warnings as "part of a growing censorship movement." She specifically targets an opinion piece in a Columbia University newspaper, which described in part a survivor of sexual assault wanting greater protection after feeling triggered during a class discussion on the rape scenes in Ovid's Metamorphoses. Noonan argues that the world is an unsafe place, and that students shouldn't try to shape it into something more comforting:
There is no such thing as safety. That is asking too much of life. You can't expect those around you to constantly accommodate your need for safety ... [I]f you constantly feel anxious and frightened by what you encounter in life, are we sure that means the world must reorder itself? Might it mean you need a lot of therapy?
Noonan is being flippant, but her dismissive joke actually points to a growing problem: colleges don't offer students enough mental health support, which may be one explanation for the growing trend of students trying to create safe spaces and safe texts for themselves.
May is National Mental Health Awareness Month, and the same day Noonan's column was published, a report released as part of the campaign found that millennials who work (which would include many college students) have the highest rates of depression of any generation. Last year, The Washington Post noted that according to recent studies, "44 percent of college students experienced symptoms of depression, and suicide is one of the leading causes of death among college students."
And victims of rape, intimate-partner violence, stalking, or sexual assault -- which the Columbia University student Noonan highlighted reportedly was -- are "drastically more likely to develop a mental disorder at some point in their lives," according to a 2011 Journal of the American Medical Association study, CNN reported at the time.
These students often don't have access to help, including the therapy Noonan blithely suggested. In 2011, the American Psychological Association labeled the state of mental health on campuses a "growing crisis," and they've continued to track the concerns since. College counseling centers, they explained, "are frequently forced to come up with creative ways to manage their growing caseloads. For example, 76.6 percent of college counseling directors reported reducing the number of visits for non-crisis patients to cope with the increasing number of clients." 88 percent of campus counseling centers surveyed by the American College Counseling Association said they experienced staffing problems due to the increase in demand, the Baltimore Sun reported in 2013.
But as of 2012, only 56 percent of four-year colleges and universities offered on-campus psychiatric services. Fewer than 13 percent of community colleges did as well. The services can't keep up with the rise in demand.
To be sure, not all of the students asking for safe spaces or trigger warnings on their campuses need therapy, nor are they all seeking these spaces because of a general lack of robust mental health service on their campuses. However, I know at least some of them are, because that's exactly what I did.
From the April 23 edition of Fox News' The Five:
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Fox News Radio host Tom Sullivan is backtracking and brazenly lying about his controversial remarks calling bipolar disorder "made up" and "the latest fad." While Sullivan now claims his remarks were taken "out of context," this defense is preposterous. He repeatedly dismissed the validity of bipolar disorder and the clip used by Media Matters was the same one posted by his employer with the headline "(AUDIO) Bipolar Woman Says She DESERVES Disability Benefits. Tom Tells Her She's WRONG!"
During his January 28 program, Sullivan told a caller who said she suffered from bipolar disorder that "bipolar is like the latest fad." He also claimed, "I just think it's something made up by the mental health business," and "I don't know why we have to create these new illnesses" for something that "wasn't a problem in the first place."
Sullivan's remarks generated condemnation from Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-CA), members of the media, mental health advocates, people on social media, and online petitioners. Many have pointed out that comments like Sullivan's only further stigmatize those suffering from mental illness.
Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-CA) criticized Fox News Radio host Tom Sullivan for his "unfounded" and "senseless" remarks last week calling bipolar disorder "made up" and "the latest fad."
In a statement provided to Media Matters, Napolitano said that Sullivan's "senseless speech discourages listeners and viewers from seeking treatment they need, halting the progress we have made toward the goal of eliminating stigma." She added: "Rather than minimizing people who have the courage to talk about their illness we should be lifting them up, so others know it is always okay to ask for help."
The California congresswoman is a longtime mental health advocate and was the co-chair of the Congressional Mental Health Caucus in the 108th through 112th (2003-2013) Congresses.
Sullivan, who is also a Fox Business contributor and regular guest anchor, said on his January 28 Fox News Radio program that people with mental illness have figured how to "game the system" by receiving disability benefits. He added, "they're mostly government employees and they know how to do it."
From the February 4 edition of MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show:
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Rand Paul's connection to leading conspiracy theorist Alex Jones is under new scrutiny after the Republican senator recently claimed vaccines could lead to "mental disorders."
In 2009, Paul was interviewed for Jones' Infowars.com and claimed "martial law" could lead to "mandatory" vaccinations. Paul is one of Jones' biggest enablers even though the radio host has pushed fringe theories about 9-11, mass shootings, and the federal government.
Paul has been heavily criticized after he said this week that vaccines should be voluntary because there are purportedly "many tragic cases of walking, talking, normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines." Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie also recently said parents should have "some measure of choice" about vaccinations.
The Washington Post reported that "Medical experts reacted with alarm" to their remarks. MIT professor Seth Mnookin, who has written extensively on the "devastating" anti-vaccine movement, said the comments were "incredibly, incredibly irresponsible." University of Pittsburgh Dr. Amesh Adalja said people like Paul are "giving credence to things that have been completely debunked" and "called the comments from Paul particularly troubling because Paul is a doctor."
Paul raised the specter of big government and "martial law" when talking about vaccines during an August 21, 2009 interview, as Media Matters Action Network reported in 2010. He said that "the first sort of thing you see with martial law is mandates. And they're talking about making it mandatory. I worry because the last flu vaccine we had in the 1970s, more people died from the vaccine than died from the swine flu."
Paul, who was a U.S. Senate candidate at the time, added that he would have taken the smallpox and polio vaccine, but urged caution on vaccines in general, stating: "I say you have to be careful, you have to weigh the risks of the disease versus the risks of the vaccine, but I'm not going to tell people who think it's a bad idea that they have to take it because everybody should be allowed to make their own health care decisions, and that's the problem with allowing more and more government."
ABC News contributor Laura Ingraham falsely suggested there's a link between vaccines and autism, which flies in the face of substantial scientific evidence and her own employer's reporting on the issue.
A domestic measles outbreak has highlighted the rising numbers of American parents who disregard medical recommendations and choose not to vaccinate their children, often for religious or personal reasons.
On February 2, Ingraham spoke with a caller on her radio show who claimed that vaccinations had "something to do with" her child getting autism. Ingraham suggested that this might be a compelling reason to forgo vaccinating children, saying that there has been "anecdotal evidence" pointing to "overnight change" in children who have been vaccinated.
Contrary to Ingraham, ABC News reported just the day before that the science is clear: there is no link between autism and vaccines.
As ABC's This Week explained on February 1, a "now discredited study" published in 1998 originally gave rise to this myth about autism. The Lancet, the medical journal which published the study, retracted it in 2010, while The British Medical Journal called the research "fraudulent" and authorities stripped the doctor of his license. Multiple studies since then have confirmed that vaccines are safe.
"Study after study has shown that there are no negative long-term consequences," CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden told ABC. Measles, he said, is a "serious disease, and it would be terrible if we have preventable illness, even death, from this disease that's preventable with a safe and effective vaccine."
A New York Times report explained how irresponsible media coverage has played a role in perpetuating this dangerous myth about vaccines. Right-wing media figures, including Fox & Friends, Sharyl Attkisson, and now Ingraham, have long helped prop up discredited science and baseless fearmongering about the safeties of vaccines. Glenn Beck and multiple Fox News figures have repeatedly floated debunked claims vaccines may be linked to autism. Rush Limbaugh even declared in 2009 that it was "hard to disagree" with claims that the swine flu vaccine was "developed to kill people."
During her radio show, Ingraham went on to claim that measles is "not generally a deadly disease" -- ignoring the fact that "measles is one of the leading causes of death among young children" worldwide -- and to baselessly speculate that undocumented immigrants were to blame for spreading infectious diseases such as measles and TB in the U.S.
ABC News hired Ingraham as a contributor in April 2014, despite her long history of inflammatory and misinformed rhetoric.
From the February 2 edition of Fox News' Hannity:
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Fox News Radio host Tom Sullivan told a caller who said she suffered from bipolar disorder that her illness is "something made up by the mental health business" and just "the latest fad." When the caller told Sullivan that she "would not be alive today" if she hadn't received mental health treatment, Sullivan wondered if "maybe somebody's talked you into feeling and thinking this way."
Sullivan, who is also a frequent Fox Business contributor and guest anchor, began his January 28 program by complaining that people with mental illness have figured how to "game the system" by receiving disability benefits. "They're mostly government employees and they know how to do it," he added. Sullivan also defended Sen. Rand Paul's (R-KY) controversial and false statement that "Over half the people on disability are either anxious or their back hurts."
A caller later challenged Sullivan over his remarks, saying she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder thirteen years ago and mental health treatment allowed her to graduate from college and obtain a full-time job. The caller, who now volunteers with Stop Stigma Sacramento, noted that bipolar disorder isn't a made up illness and is biological.
Fox News' Keith Ablow issued a defiant statement defending his cable news psychoanalysis of President Obama after being condemned by medical experts.
Here is a sample of the type of bizarre and offensive commentary offered by Ablow:
Yesterday the Associated Press reported on criticism of Ablow from other psychiatrists, including the past president of the American Psychiatric Association's statement that "it is shameful and unfortunate that he is given a platform by Fox News or any other media organization."
Medical experts contacted by the Associated Press condemned Fox News contributor Dr. Keith Ablow for his ongoing cable news psychoanalysis of President Obama, his wife, and other figures.
Last week, Michael Savage leveled his latest in a long string of attacks on Americans with mental illness and the medical community that works to help them. After a veteran caller with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) expressed support for the city of San Francisco naming a bridge after the late Robin Williams, the right-wing radio host announced that he is "so sick and tired of everyone with their complaints about PTSD, depression," asserting that it's a sign of a "weak, sick, broken nation."
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), approximately 5.2 million adults have PTSD within a given year. As of 2012, mental illness was the leading reason for active-duty hospitalizations in the military, and the VA estimates that up to 20 percent of veterans who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars since 2001 suffer from PTSD. For veterans who left the military between October 2002 and July 2011, nearly 200,000 had a provisional diagnosis for PTSD, not including those who went undiagnosed or misdiagnosed. And the Institute of Medicine reported in June that "PTSD is the third most common major service-connected disability after hearing loss and ringing of the ears."
PTSD isn't just a combat-related injury. It can result from various traumatic incidents, ranging from child abuse to car accidents to muggings to sexual assault. A fight-or-flight response can be triggered by things that remind the survivor of her trauma, or things that catch the person off-guard, like bright lights or loud noises. Often those with PTSD experience flashbacks, where memories and feelings associated with past trauma come rushing back as if the trauma was happening all over again.
Conservative radio host Michael Savage accused those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression, including military veterans, of being "weak," "narcissistic," "losers." Savage added that "we're being laughed at around the world. No wonder ISIS can defeat our military."
As Right Wing Watch's Brian Tashman documented, Savage began an October 14 segment by complaining about a plan to rename a San Francisco tunnel after the late comedian Robin Williams. Savage called Williams "a depressed clown who was so selfish he choked himself to death with a belt." He added: "What is this sick, backwards area I live in?"
After getting into a heated argument with a caller who said he suffered from PTSD while in the military, Savage went on an unhinged rant in which he explained why he is "so sick and tired of everyone with their complaints about PTSD, depression":