Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott is calling for more resources for mental health following a mass shooting at an outlet mall in Allen, Texas, on Saturday in which a gunman killed at least eight people. Abbott presented those resources as the solution for the gun violence that has wracked the state in recent years. But there’s little evidence increased funding for mental health services will reduce gun violence.
“What Texas is doing in a big-time way, we are working to address that anger and violence but going to its root cause, which is addressing the mental health problems behind it,” Abbott said during an interview on Fox News Sunday. “People want a quick solution. The long-term solution here is to address the mental health issue.”
It’s one of many times since Abbott took office that the Republican governor and his party have invoked mental health issues as the root cause of mass shootings in the state, including last year’s shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, the 2019 El Paso Walmart shooting, the 2019 Midland-Odessa shooting, the 2018 Santa Fe High School shooting, and the 2017 First Baptist Church shooting.
President Joe Biden, on the other hand, reiterated his calls Sunday for more federal gun control, including legislation banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, enacting universal background checks, requiring safe storage of guns, and ending immunity for gun manufacturers.
Though the Texas legislature has allocated more than $1.5 billion toward mental health services in the last few years, those services remain inaccessible to many in Texas, which faces a critical shortage of mental health professionals.
What’s more, it’s not clear that addressing the state’s mental health crisis will have any meaningful impact on preventing gun violence, given the large body of research that shows most individuals with serious mental health issues never become violent. Rather, Republicans’ rhetoric around mental health issues — a playbook long practiced by gun-rights advocates — serves to distract from discussions that they are unwilling to have around gun control.
There is a mental health crisis in Texas
Many states are struggling to meet the demand for mental health resources in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, but Texas is faring worse than most. About 37 percent of Texas adults reported symptoms of anxiety or a depressive disorder, compared to the national average of about 32 percent, in a February 2023 US Census Bureau survey.
Texas has also fallen behind other states in terms of access to mental health care. Mental Health America, a nonprofit advocacy group, found that Texas had the worst access to mental health services overall as of 2022 when considering “access to insurance, access to treatment, quality and cost of insurance, access to special education, and workforce availability.” As of 2023, 98 percent of the state’s 254 counties were at least partially designated as “mental health professional shortage areas” by the federal government.
Another February survey by the Episcopal Health Foundation, a Texas-based public health nonprofit, found that more than half of Texans say that increasing funding for mental health programs should be the state’s top health care priority. More than a quarter reported that a member of their household had trouble accessing mental health care because of cost — the highest share that the organization has ever reported in five years of conducting the poll.
The Texas legislature is taking steps to address the state’s mental health crisis with a $34 million bipartisan package to fund mental health services, especially for minors. That bill, which passed the state senate last month and is expected to become law, is a significant step, but might still not be enough to address historical funding shortfalls.
Though the governor promised to fund mental health services following the Uvalde shooting last year, he diverted $211 million from the department that oversees mental health issues — more than from any other state agency — to fund his border enforcement program. The new bill won’t even come close to making up for that diversion.
Why gun rights advocates talk about mental health over gun control
Gun rights advocates have long pushed the narrative that mental health issues, rather than guns, are the root cause of gun violence.
Both former President Donald Trump and former Vice President Mike Pence repeated that claim at the National Rifle Association annual meeting last month. “This is not a gun problem,” Trump said. “This is a mental health problem, this is a social problem, this is a cultural problem, this is a spiritual problem.”
But that just doesn’t seem to be borne out by the research. A 2016 literature review by the American Psychiatric Association found that mass shooters with serious mental illness account for less than 1 percent of annual gun-related homicides. It also found that only about 3 percent of violent crimes and an even smaller share of those involving a firearm are committed by individuals with serious mental illness.
Blaming America’s gun violence epidemic on mental health issues, as Republicans have done, obscures the much stronger link between gun ownership and gun deaths. One 2013 Boston University-led study, for instance, found that for each percentage point increase in gun ownership at the household level, the state firearm homicide rate increased by 0.9 percent. More guns are purchased in Texas than any other state, and it also has a higher-than-average number of gun deaths.
There is also concern that a Republican focus on mental health and violence could actually lead to less treatment because linking the two can reinforce the stigma around mental health issues.
“Gun restriction laws focusing on people with mental illness perpetuate the myth that mental illness leads to violence, as well as the misperception that gun violence and mental illness are strongly linked,” write James L. Knoll IV and George D. Annas in their literature review. “Stigma represents a major barrier to access and treatment of mental illness, which in turn increases the public health burden.”