Mike Brose, CEO of Mental Health Oklahoma, speaks at the unveiling of the “Too Big To Ignore” mural in Tulsa in May 2017. KASSIE MCCLUNG/The Frontier

While statements made by several Oklahoma politicians make it clear they believe the key to preventing mass shootings lies in increasing mental health funding rather than tightening gun laws, mental health experts believe the solution is more nuanced.

Last week, in the aftermath of mass shootings in Texas and Ohio that left more than 30 people dead, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, as well as Sen. Jim Inhofe and representatives Markwayne Mullin and Kevin Hern, all said they wanted to see Oklahoma address its residents’ mental health needs in order to avoid large-scale mass shootings.

But some experts told The Frontier they believe mental health is only one piece of a bigger puzzle when it comes to why mass shootings happen.

“There are countries all over the world with the same rates of mental illness and addiction, the same issues as the U.S.,” Mike Brose, executive director of Mental Health Association Oklahoma, said. “But if you look at the data, they’re not having anywhere near the number of mass shootings we are.”

Stitt, in a statement to The Frontier last week, said mass shootings are not “a firearm issue,” and said that Oklahomans must place “a strong emphasis on mental health.”

And Mullin, Inhofe and Hern all said in the days following the Texas and Ohio shootings that improving “mental health” could stymie mass shootings.

Meanwhile, a report on mass violence issued earlier this month by The National Council for Behavioral Health, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit, found that mental illness “plays an important but limited role” in mass violence.

The report says that “among advanced countries, the U.S. has a unique problem with mass violence” and that “After such events, political leaders often invoke mental illness as the reason for mass violence.

“That resonates with the widespread public belief that mentally ill individuals in general pose a danger to others. Since it is difficult to imagine that a mentally healthy person would deliberately kill multiple strangers, it is commonly assumed that all perpetrators of mass violence must be mentally ill.”

Jason Beaman, chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences, said that while he’s “happy to see our politicians speak out about mental illness,” only a “small percentage” of motives for mass shootings are related to mental health issues.

Beaman has studied the motives behind mass shootings and said that the vast majority of the time, mass violence stems from something beyond mental illness.

“Now if you have a severe mental illness, you are slightly more likely for some kind of act of violence,” he said. “But you are also much more likely to be a victim of violence. And you are far more likely to commit suicide than a homicide.”

Dr. Jason Beaman monitors every overdose death in the state. KASSIE McCLUNG/The Frontier

The National Council for Behavioral Health report states that “Lumping all mental illness together, and then assuming” that mass shootings are due only to mental illness “results in millions of harmless, nonviolent individuals recovering from treatable mental health conditions being subjected to stigma, rejection, discrimination and even unwarranted legal restrictions and social control.”

In Oklahoma, political focus is on mental health, not guns

Brose said repeated calls for “mental health” funding following mass shootings “are frustrating” to mental health advocates.

“There’s one argument that we need to limit the ability of people to access military-style assault weapons,” Brose said. “These crimes are being perpetrated almost exclusively with high-powered assault weapons. I think to deflect that blame away, the pro-gun lobby begins to blame mental illness.”

The NCBH report says that calls for “mental health laws” are “simplistic conclusions” which “ignore the fact that mass violence is caused by many social and psychological factors that interact in complex ways” and that “many, if not most, perpetrators do not have a major psychiatric disorder.”

“(R)ather than being sympathetic to the plight of people who are mentally ill, the public discourse about mass violence and ‘mental illness’ often dehumanizes them,” the report states.

Beaman said that while he’s “seen no evidence” that increasing mental health funding would necessarily stop or decrease mass shootings, he does agree that some good can come out of calls for increased mental health funding.

“I’m always happy to see politicians aware of mental illness,” Beaman said. “Getting funding for mental health has always been an arm wrestling match in Oklahoma.”

Earlier this year, an $8.1 billion budget plan signed by Stitt included an additional $10 million in funding for the Oklahoma State Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services’ Smart on Crime program. That backing came at the expense of voter-approved funding for the County Community Safety Investment Fund, part of a package of criminal justice reforms from 2016.

The County Community Safety Investment Fund was promoted as a way to divert more non-violent offenders away from prison and into substance abuse and mental health programs.

Instead, Stitt chose to fund an ODMHSAS program geared toward diverting people with mental illness and addiction from the criminal justice system and through intervention and treatment.

“The governor’s priority in his State of the State was to increase the state’s investments in diversion programs, drug courts, and other opportunities to help give Oklahomans a second chance,” Stitt spokeswoman Baylee Lakey said earlier this year. “During budget negotiations, it was decided that the best place to currently invest the $10 million the governor requested is with the Department of Mental Health’s Smart on Crime diversion programs. This is just the beginning, and the governor will continue to monitor funding and work to ensure we are maximizing resources to change Oklahoma’s number one ranking in incarceration.”

While groups across the country have called for tighter gun laws — like bump stock bans, red flag laws, comprehensive background checks, or assault weapon bans — in Oklahoma, gun laws are getting less restrictive.

The first bill signed by Stitt upon taking office was a law that will allow Oklahomans to legally carry a firearm without a permit or training. Called either “constitutional carry” by supporters, or “permitless carry” by detractors, the law goes into effect Nov. 1. A democratic state representative is collecting signatures in a bid to keep the bill from becoming law until voters can decide for themselves in the 2020 election. 

The law was criticized by many business associations, law enforcement groups and others who have claimed that more guns in public places by less trained Oklahomans presents a safety risk.

“I think in Oklahoma we’re headed in the wrong direction with Constitutional Carry,” Brose said.

Brose said he feels that calls for mental health funding following mass shootings are typically “politically convenient positions” held by people who want to “deflect blame and diverting the focus away from the ability of people to secure military-style weapons that aren’t really used for hunting or self-defense.

“If that’s what you believe, then let’s really up our investment in mental health care treatment in Oklahoma … we’re 48th or whatever in per capita mental health spending and we continue to reject Medicaid expansion which would allow more access to mental health care,” he said.

Donelle Harder, Stitt’s chief spokeswoman, said in an email that the governor’s budget for fiscal year 2020 had $14 million in increased funding for mental health care.

That $14 million includes the $10 million for the “Smart on Crime” diversion program, $1.7 million to “maintain existing programs/growth,” $500,000 for a suicide prevention grant replacement and $1.8 million for state employee pay raises.

Beaman said he was impressed with Stitt’s interest in mental health care.

“We’ve seen more attention from this administration than we have in my entire career,” he said. “My department has already met with the governor’s administration on several occasions in the short amount of time he’s been in office, and we had never met with anyone from the (Gov. Mary Fallin) administration.

“I think Stitt has been proactive on mental illness.”