Truths and tales about mental illness and guns
“If you disagree with background checks, the logical jump is you believe it’s okay for criminals and the dangerously mentally ill to buy guns,” explains Bay Area Congressman Mike Thompson, speaking about his own proposed legislation to limit access to firearms. Thompson’s not the only one to connect mental illness with violence. The country has heard similar statements from national figures across the political spectrum, including the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre, who has stated: “We have a mental health system in this country that has completely and totally collapsed. We have no national database of these lunatics."
Even President Barack Obama has drawn a connection, stating: “Now, in the coming weeks, members of Congress will vote on whether we should require universal background checks for anyone who wants to buy a gun so that criminals or people with severe mental illnesses can’t get their hands on one.”
The easy connection between mental illness and violence worries people who advocate for the mentally ill. About 46 million adults in the US live with mental illness, a broad term which includes disorders such as depression, anxiety, and ADHD.
Arthur Renowitzky has lived on both sides of the issue. Renowitzky is your average go-getter in his mid-twenties. He’s a junior in college, where he’s studying communications. He volunteers at his local boys and girls club. He plays basketball with his friends on the weekend. He is, all in all, a normal guy who’s trying to make a difference in the world. But, just five years ago, Renowitzky’s path took an unexpected turn.
After a night out with friends at a San Francisco nightclub, Renowitzky was robbed at gunpoint. His story is part of a documentary called Shine. In the film, he and the filmmaker travel back to where Renowitzky was shot.
“So where are we going?” asks the filmmaker.
“Uh we are going to San Francisco right behind City Nights,” answers Arthur, “to the exact location where I was gun downed at.”
“How often do you go back there?”
The experience of returning to where he had been shot was not easy.
“That was the first time that I went back into that time, back to the same spot where I was shot. And it was, uh, it was pretty real. Like it didn’t set in until the director Dan really wanted to get into it and tell him how I was feeling and we had to do take over take...I had to really break down at one time and share how I felt about it,” remembers Renowitzky.
When he was robbed, Renowitzky had $20 on him and was wearing a fake chain.
“The bullet went through my chest and went through both of my lungs, shattered my spine, paralyzed me, and it’s still lodged in my liver right now,” he explains in the film. “One bullet did a lot of damage. I remember just trying to get up and run away. You know my arms were working but I just couldn’t get up I couldn’t stand up like I’ve been doing for the past 20 years of being alive.”
Renowitzky was taken to the hospital where he slipped into a coma. He did get his voice back after they removed his breathing tube, but Renowitzky never got his legs back. He was and is to this day paralyzed from the waist down.
After months of therapy in the hospital, he went home and quickly became depressed. It was because of his depression that he was chosen to be in the documentary, and the fact that his story is not a common one when it comes to talking about mental illness.
“We feel like a lot of time in the news, when mental health is talked about in a young adult population in that context it’s very often like more affluent, more white, it really, it lacked a certain diversity, a certain reality. I really wanted to bring those stories that weren’t already to light, um bring them to the public consciousness,” Shannon Elliot of for Peers Envisioning and Engaging in Recovery Services (PEERS) explains. PEERS is an Oakland-based non-profit that made the documentary featuring Renowitzky. The organization also provides health services and fights stigma attached to being mentally ill.
PEERS made a documentary about local youth who face mental illness as a result of trauma. Elliot says this is important, because the mentally ill are so rarely portrayed positively. A 2006 study of TV shows found that half of mentally ill characters are portrayed as violent; a quarter kill someone.
“So that sort of stereotype of the, oh the axe murderer with bipolar, or the depressed killer, or the schizophrenic person who is going to blow up a building,” Elliot says. “There’s a reason those stereotypes are there. Because, in large part, they are perpetuated by the media because that sells. And it’s really unfortunate because it’s very harmful.”
Harmful because these stereotypes, Elliot says, are basically inaccurate. Many people with mental illness lead normal lives, she emphasized.
“There are plenty of real world cases all over, that of politicians, lawyers, doctors, community leaders, advocates. In California one out of five people have a mental health issue. And globally it’s actually one out of four, so we’re talking 20 to 25 percent of the population,” says Elliot.
Research shows that if all mental illness was somehow eliminated, overall violence would be reduced by only ten percent. However, highly publicized mass shootings, such as the one in Newton or at Virginia Tech back in 2007, have linked gun violence to mental illness in a big way for mainstream America. And this has motivated bipartisan proposals to fight gun violence by improving our mental health care system.
“Just like every other person in America I was just heartbroken,” says Elliot after she heard about the Newton shooting. “I don’t have kids, I’m not a parent, but that didn’t matter. I just wanted to cry for a week, too. That was my first reaction as a human being. And then sort of as the dust cleared I thought, uh oh, this isn’t good – and the reason that I thought that was because it’s really unfortunate that there is a stereotype and a myth that links mental illness with violence.”
The World Psychiatry Association says the mentally ill are actually more likely to be victims of violence than they are to be perpetrators. Advocates fear that misleading stereotypes will only further isolate people suffering from mental illness, making it less likely that they will seek help, even if future legislation makes help more accessible.
However, the importance of support to help those with mental illness should not be understated. Months into Renowitzky’s depression, his brothers came up with an idea to get him out of the house.
“They took me to this place called BORT, which stands for Bay Area Outreach Program in Berkeley,” says Renowitzky. “It’s a place where they have disabled sports. They said they have this hand-cycle bike where you can get on the bike and peddle with you hands. So, you know, I was depressed in my room like, I’m not doing anything else, just rotting away in this room. I might as well just try it. I got up, brought my brothers, and I hopped on my hand cycle.”
That day, something shifted in him. “I felt like I never wanted to give up again. So, from then on I didn’t look back.”
Since that moment, Renowitzky has devoted his life to gun violence prevention. He started the Life Goes on Foundation, a non-profit raising awareness about gun violence. He writes and performs music with a positive, peaceful message. And he speaks at juvenile halls and Boys and Girls clubs, telling his story to youth all over the Bay Area.
Renowitzky says his goal is to remind people that what happened to him is happening all over the country, all the time, and that it shouldn’t take a mass shooting to get people thinking about gun violence.
“I was in hospital in rehab with a lot of gunshot victims,” says Renowitzky. “And I talk to them now and they are just sitting at home, rotting away, and depressed. And that is my motivation as well, to get my story out there so they can feel my pain, they can feel what I went through.”