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News Tip: Duke Mental Health Experts Available to Discuss D.C. Mass Shooting

"We need to think...about mental illness and violence in society as two separate public health problems that overlap at the margins."

Jeffrey Swanson, Ph.D. Professor in professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences, Duke University School of Medicine Swanson is principal investigator of a multi-site study on firearms laws, mental illness and prevention of violence, co-sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Program on Public Health Law Research. Quote: "As we think about another 12 people killed in another senseless gun rampage, let's not forget that about 85 people are shot to death every day in this country -- over half of them by their own hand.  It's tempting to blame it all on mental illness, because what person in their right mind massacres strangers? But the fact is that only about 4 percent of violent acts against others result from mental disorder; the vast majority of people with psychiatric illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder do not engage in violence.  "That's part of the reason why it's so difficult to predict these violent acts. Suicide is more strongly connected to mental health problems, and if we include suicide as part of the gun violence epidemic, it's certainly true that many lives could be saved if people had better access to mental health treatment, and less access to lethal means." Marvin Swartz, M.D. Professor of psychiatry and behavioral health; head of Duke’s Division of Social and Community Psychiatry Swartz examines the effectiveness of services for severely mentally ill individuals, including factors that improve or impede good outcomes. Current research includes: the effectiveness of involuntary outpatient commitment, psychiatric advance directives and antipsychotic medications.   Quote: "We do need to improve mental health care in this country; we need more effective treatments and better access to services for people with serious mental illnesses. The current system is too fragmented, overburdened and underfunded -- with the result that millions of seriously mentally ill people are going without treatment every year. "That said, people with mental illness are really not the source of our social problem of gun violence.  Mass shooters with mental health problems get a huge amount of media attention, but they don't represent most people that psychiatrists treat. They're also atypical of most people who commit violent crimes. We need to think more broadly about mental illness and violence in society as two separate public health problems that overlap at the margins." Tim Strauman, Ph.D. Professor of psychology and neuroscience, Duke University Strauman specializes in clinical and social psychology. His research interests include depression and anxiety, both in terms of treatment and prevention. Quote: "At first glance it may seem like effective screening to reduce gun violence due to mental illness is impossible. However, available research provides clues that can help us direct our efforts to prevent such unfortunate occurrences. For example, undergraduate researcher Kaitlin Gladney and I have found that while both schizophrenia and substance abuse are associated with increased risk for gun violence, the combination of those two disorders leads to a disproportionately greater risk of gun-related violence. "By using the available research as a starting point, there are at least two ways to improve our ability to prevent such violence: provide more effective treatment options for the mental disorders that increase risk, and ensure that our gun laws reflect what is known about the relationship between specific mental disorders and risk for violence. "Both of these options are more effective and less costly than the alternatives -- hospitalization, incarceration -- and both have been shown to prevent tragedies such as the DC Navy Yard shootings."