Opinion: Gun violence is more than a mental health issue

Willie E. Brooks
Demonstrators gather to protest the arrival of President Donald Trump outside Miami Valley Hospital after a mass shooting that occurred in the Oregon District early Sunday morning, Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019, in Dayton, Ohio.

Three million American children witness gun violence every year, and firearms are the second leading cause of death for American children and teens.

We at the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority (DWMHA) believe that gun violence is a major public health concern and are committed, as the Michigan’s largest public community mental health safety-net organization to make a difference in stopping the gun violence.

At our most recent Board of Directors meeting, Chairman Bernard Parker led the charge to pass a resolution that DWMHA is committed to doing more to keep our citizens safe.

We continue to stand with our nation as we mourn senseless acts of gun violence. We believe it is imperative that we unite with multiple organizations to address gun laws and legislation aimed at keeping our communities safe.

We have an obligation to the 75,000 people served in Wayne County to ensure mental health, disability and substance use services support and resources are readily available and accessible to anyone that needs them regardless of age, race, income or insurance status.

I am also strongly committed to ending the stigma associated between mental illness and gun violence. Not everyone that commits a violent act is mentally ill. According to the National Council on Behavioral Health, mental illness does not automatically make a person high risk for perpetrating mass violence. In addition, people with serious mental illness are responsible for less than 4% of all violence and 25% of mass violence. In fact, people with a mental illness are more likely to be a victim of gun violence than be the actual perpetrator. Gun access, not mental health symptoms, is the primary predictor of gun violence.

So what are we doing about it? We are providing education, resources and care for children and adults with mental illness diagnoses and support for their families and offer an array of services and resources to help treat the behavioral health of the citizens of Wayne County.

Our School Success Initiative operates over 70 behavioral health clinics inside Wayne County schools, which diagnose and treat behavioral health issues in children and youth before they choose negative alternatives.

We are proud to say we have trained over 15,000 people in mental health first aid and suicide prevention. Most of them are Wayne County law enforcement and first-responders who are on the front lines, saving lives every day. This intensive course offers: introducing participants to risk factors and warning signs of mental health concerns, demonstrating how to assess a mental health crisis, providing initial help; and demonstrating ways to connect people to professional, peer and social supports in their community. This training also offers self-help resources, which can help prevent suicides and improve the safety of individuals with behavioral health challenges.

We recognize that many issues especially related to trauma begin at a very young age. We realize the need for continued community programs. We have approximately 70 behavioral health clinics; local hospitals have about 30 clinics. Over 400 schools are in need of a clinician in Wayne County. We believe the federal, state and major foundations need to provide funding so all children can receive preventive mental health education and behavioral health services in their schools.

We would like all corporations, faith based organizations, nonprofits and governmental institutions to provide mental health first aid and suicide prevention training to their respective employees, congregations and members to introduce them to risk factors and warning signs of people that may have mental health concerns.

DWMHA is committed to pursue collaborations with organizations that share our same mission of compassion and care for those in our communities to put an end to this major public health concern and to keep our communities and citizens safe.

We must win the fight against gun violence and break down the stigmas and stereotypes against mental illness.

Willie E. Brooks Jr. is president and CEO of the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority.