Firearms availability and mental health

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Morning Zen Guest Blog Post ~ Kevin Dwyer

Firearms & mental illness comparison to comparable nations
Trained as a social scientist in examining cause and effect one looks for similarities and differences among variables that have a logical relationship to the variation in outcomes. When looking at death by firearms one can examine accidents, homicides and suicides. For example it might be hypothesized that the numbers of accessible firearms might increase the number of human deaths by firearms beyond those directly related to legal self-defense or policing. You might make comparisons between our country and comparable countries such as England, Canada or Australia whose language and social-ethnic strata are similar & who have stable, democratic governments. These countries have identifiable differences in firearm access laws. They also keep statistics on important variables of access to firearms and lethal outcomes. 

The findings are clear (as reported by advocacy groups and government agencies). Among these comparable countries:

Firearms and fatalities

According to the Washington Post’s Mark Fisher (December 14, 2012) U.N. data shows an American is 20 times more likely to be murdered by a firearm than a person living in any other developed country. 

Mental illness

Easy access to abundant firearms in the USA by persons with and without mental illness can be associated the higher death, tragedy and firearm violence in our country making our schools, malls, streets, houses of worship and our homes more lethal than comparable settings in the other 3 similar countries. The data speaks for itself, more accessible firearms, more tragic deaths, more murders, and suicides with firearms. One may conclude:

Given the conclusion, there are other interventions that can be made. If we are not going to support reducing privately owned firearms we must block access to those firearms by angry, depressed, or other family members with mental illness.

Another thing we can do is help people better address anger, stress and, yes, mental illness. An untreated schizophrenic with paranoid inner voices can have those voices shut off or toned down with medication. The voices are neurochemical and can be treated neurochemically with psychotropic drugs, psychotherapy and supports. If a teen is despondent, anxious and bullied, that teen can be helped and supported by counseling and caring peers/family. All children and youth can be taught social skills to improve problem solving and coping skills.              

What we have learned about addressing early warning signs preventing firearms tragedies in schools
Since the school shooting at Jonesboro, Arkansas, and more critically after Columbine, schools have been improving prevention and intervention initiatives to reduce peer violence and tragedy. One very effective prevention mechanism has been to provide easier access to school mental health staff to respond to student’s reports of concerns about their friends, about shared sadness, about stress and anger. We have successively taught students to share worries. Some of these efforts have focused on suicide threats, others on bullying some on scary facebook chatter. The results have been many thousands of supportive interventions for school children and their families. Few keep records of these interventions so no one can tell if these interventions prevented killings but the general data shows reductions in both completed youth suicides and in school violence since the 1990’s. School security officers and metal detectors and other hardware may be helping but “humanware,” caring connections and mental health services are more vital in developing this improved safe school climate.  

Importantly, students themselves are critical in preventing violence. Students now feel that “warning signs” they see or hear from a friend can be shared with trusting adults and that help will be the result rather than punishment or adults discounting their shared concerns.

Furthermore, when teachers and school staff are supported in raising concerns about a student’s stress and observed functional changes in behavior, children are saved from acting on suicidal or violent thoughts and plans. 

Teaching & supporting mental health promotion, early and intensive intervention is successful in schools
There are numerous effective mentally healthy things that schools are doing with success that can be applied to all ages. If children can be taught positive coping skills and self control strategies so can adults. Employers, community organizations can communicate and teach these constructs. Warning signs can be publicly broadcast to improve awareness. And we need to do more to help the adult and youth who may be burdened by mental illnesses. Improvements in treatment and interventions are not sufficiently publicly understood. Access to help is not sufficiently supported. 

Mental health workers ask about firearms in the home
One positive intervention by mental health professionals working with children and youth has been to routinely inquire about the availability of firearms in the home of persons receiving mental health services, particularly for those who are suicidal, depressed, paranoid or angry and impulsive. We all do this now. Most therapists will drill down to insure that if firearms are in the home families are made aware of the danger and are urged to remove those firearms or at a minimum secure them. Complacency or discounting the danger is generally not tolerated. Even securing firearms in the home is not fool-proof. Children and youths have broken locks, found combinations, even bought bullets to use in unloaded family firearms to kill themselves and sometimes others. 

Mental health treatment works to reduce tragedies
Proven mental health treatments have been supported through training and professional best-practice guidelines. The best-practice constructs we have used with children can be generalized for the public across the life-span. Adults, family and friends can be supported in sharing their concerns about their stressed loved ones with mental health professionals, clergy or others who are or can be trained to listen and support in confidence the shared “warning signs” that may require interventions. Connection to crisis centers is now common. People can be given ways to approach a friend or family member who is in distress to seek mental health help. To make this more universal will require a responsive and effective mental health system. We know that professionally supported family interventions that are used effectively for substance abuse and can also be used to get a person into treatment and prevent tragedy. It takes planning, communication, training and changes in our view of friends helping friends to get mental health treatment. It requires a general understanding that firearms are a serious danger when available to persons with early and imminent warning signs of mental illness.     

Gun security measures in homes are important
Even without new controls gun owners should routinely be given information about the dangers of having weapons in the home when a family member is in distress, has a mental illness or a history of impulsivity or rage. Gun clubs and others could support firearm storage for persons who know that removing the firearms is a preventive measure during a time of family stress.

Policy recommendations

Address Early Warning Signs to prevent firearm tragedies

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dwyerKevin P. Dwyer, M.A., a Nationally Certified School Psychologist, is an education and child mental health consultant.  He recently served as a principal research associate for the American Institutes for Research. For over 30 years he practiced school psychology in public schools and held several local, state and national leadership positions in the fields of mental health and education, being responsible for the design, development, implementation and evaluation of programs and practices, for improving school climate, safety, and wellbeing for the education, and mental health of children.  He has helped school staff in many districts use data to inform decisions on improving caring and connectedness with students and professional peers.  His work, publications, presentations, and practices have influenced public policy and the development of efficient, family-focused collaborative child service systems.  During his 30 years as a public school psychologist, he worked directly with over 10,000 children and their families as well as trained over 6000 educators. He provided psychological services to children, including those with disabilities and those whose anxiety and mental health problems blocked learning and adjustment.  He assisted teachers and staff in supporting a caring, inclusive school climate for all children.  In 2007, the Maryland Coalition of Families awarded Mr. Dwyer and his wife for their work in making schools more family friendly.  He served as president of the National Association of School Psychologist and was given its highest honor, the Life-time Achievement Award.  In 2000, he received the Tipper Gore “Advocacy award for improving the lives and mental health of America’s children” from the National Mental Health Association.


  1. Laurie Seiler's avatar
    Laurie Seiler
    | Permalink
    Please be careful to not assume that everyone with a mental illness is violent. Statistically, people with mental illness have no greater tendency than their typical peers to be violent. Substance use is what increases the odds of people, both with or without mental illness, to become violent. Otherwise, I agree with what is said here.
  2. Gayle Grass's avatar
    Gayle Grass
    | Permalink
    The Iris the Dragon ebook series teaches children and their caregivers about early warning signs of potential mental health challenges . They are endorsed and vetted by well known professionals in the field of children's mental health.
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