Blame for mass shootings often misplaced, Duluth psychiatrists say

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DULUTH, Minn.—The mentally ill shouldn't be stigmatized every time there is a mass shooting, two Duluth mental health professionals say.

"Victims of severe mental illness are much more likely to be victims of crime than to perpetuate crimes," said Dr. David Baldes, a psychiatrist at St. Luke's hospital. "On average, mental illness is not associated with violent behavior."

As more information has come out, the shooting in a small-town Texas church on Sunday morning during which 26 people were killed has been linked to a domestic dispute.

But in the early hours following the shooting, conclusions about the assailant's mental state were pronounced quickly.

During a media briefing on Monday morning in Japan, for instance, President Donald Trump said of the mass killing, "I think that mental health is your problem here."

That was a disappointing statement in the view of Dr. Michalene Stevermer, also a psychiatrist at St. Luke's.

"I think it's really unfortunate that that was the first place that the president went to or that anybody went to, really, because I feel that it further stigmatizes mental health," Stevermer said. "What we really need to do is advocate for people with mental health (issues) so that we can increase treatments and get people help."

Stevermer and Baldes were among the presenters on Monday at the hospital's third-annual mental health conference, which continues Tuesday, Nov. 7, at the Greysolon in downtown Duluth. About 170 physicians, psychotherapists, social workers, nurses and others filled much of the building's ballroom for a day of updates on the latest in mental health crisis prevention, intervention and recovery.

While much of the talk dealt with the specifics of medications, their advantages and potential side effects, everyday topics were also on people's minds.

During a late-afternoon Q&A, Baldes and Stevermer were asked about discharging mentally ill patients who then will be homeless.

Both lamented that insurance doesn't cover long-term hospitalization for those who might benefit from that.

Just as society accepts that people with chronic severe medical illnesses may need to live in a nursing home, it should be understood that people with severe mental illnesses may not be able to live independently, Baldes said.

Moreover, he said, when mental health hospitals were closed, it was with the assurance that community mental health centers would be able to take their place. But those centers have been chronically underfunded, Baldes said.

Sometimes, the mental health professionals are left to simply hope that a homeless shelter will have a spot available when a patient is discharged, he added.

But some patients may not choose a shelter even if it is available, Stevermer said.

"I have had a few patients who don't mind that lifestyle," she said. "I've had a patient who told me that he'd prefer being homeless rather than spending any of his money on any sort of an apartment or treatment center."

Baldes founded the conference two years ago to provide mental health training for other professionals in response to the shortage of psychiatrists in the region. That one-day conference attracted 45 people, and it doubled in size last year, he said. This year, the conference was expanded to two days.