State Capitol. Photo by Markus Schmidt.
State Capitol. Photo by Markus Schmidt.

After two mass shootings at the University of Virginia and at a Walmart store in Chesapeake in November that left a total of 10 people dead, Gov. Glenn Youngkin announced last week that his administration would push legislation to increase the state’s mental health resources. But some Democratic lawmakers warn that linking these two issues re-stigmatizes people suffering from mental illness.

“Every time there is a shooting the response is that we have to do something about mental health,” state Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Charlottesville, told Cardinal News in an interview earlier this week. “But the reality is that the data shows that people with mental illness are much more likely to be victims of crime than they are to be perpetrators.”

At a Thanksgiving event a week ago, Youngkin sidestepped a question from a reporter asking whether he would consider supporting legislation that would be aimed at restricting access to dangerous weapons and firearms. 

Gov. Glenn Youngkin. Courtesy of Appalachian School of Law.

“When the facts come in at the end of all the investigations, then we’ll have time to come together and talk about what actions we can take,” Youngkin said. Instead, he vowed to take further action to address the understaffing and underfunding of state agencies providing mental health services, and to begin offering patients treatment on the same day they experience a mental health crisis.

“We’ll be rolling out an entire behavioral health agenda that provides more resources, addresses the fact that we have staffing challenges in our mental health system,” Youngkin said. “Those are all key pillars of what we are proposing to discuss with the General Assembly, when we’re all together in January. It’s extremely important, we know that we have been in a mental health crisis and there are some very immediate actions we need to take.”

Youngkin did not elaborate further, and a spokeswoman for the governor did not clarify this week which concrete proposals the administration was pursuing and whether the governor was also open toward legislation aimed at limiting access to guns for some people.

On Nov. 13, a gunman opened fire at students who had just returned to the UVA campus from a bus trip to Washington, D.C., where the group had watched a play. Three students, all of which were members of the UVA football team, died in the shooting, and two more were injured. The gunman was later taken into custody and charged with three counts of second-degree murder as well as three counts of using a handgun in the commission of a felony. His motive remains unclear.

Just nine days later, on Nov. 22, a night shift manager at a Walmart Supercenter in Chesapeake opened fire in a break room, killing six co-workers and injuring four before turning the gun on himself. According to police, the man had purchased the 9mm handgun used in the shooting on the morning of the attack, and he also left a death note

Creigh Deeds

Deeds, who became a leading advocate for overhauling the state’s mental health system in 2013 after being stabbed multiple times at his Bath County home by his 24-year-old son, who then died by suicide, has also successfully pushed for closing Virginia’s gun show loophole, which allows private sellers to transfer firearms without conducting the criminal background checks required of licensed gun dealers. And in 2021, he sponsored legislation that would have required a background check before anyone would be handed a gun at a shooting range.

“We need to have a mature discussion about mental health, but about guns as well,” Deeds said in the interview earlier this week. “I hope we can find some common ground and some things to work on relating to mental health, but we also need to be able to talk about guns and how to keep them out of the hands of people that tend to do bad things with them. It’s not an either-or situation.”

The reality, Deeds said, is that “you simply cannot marry mental illness” to last month’s mass shootings in Virginia. “If you have someone who has been diagnosed with a problem, you can make sure that people like that have access to the services they need,” he said. 

But Virginia’s mental health services have been under a significant financial strain for years. Accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services in 2021 was forced to order five of its state-run psychiatric hospitals to temporarily reduce their bed capacity and consolidate staff, essentially closing them to new admissions. 

And Deeds said that budget cuts imposed by the Youngkin administration and a $100 million discrepancy between the release of the Senate budget and the final conference report earlier this year did not help to improve the situation. “That funding would have provided pay increases and stability for people who provide services in hospitals,” Deeds said.

Bruce N. Cruser, the executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Mental Health America of Virginia, said that he applauds the Youngkin administration for making mental health a priority. “They have several initiatives underway to improve the mental health system, so I commend him for that,” Cruser said. “We’ve advocated for years that we really need to have transformational investment, the sources, workforce and community care to really improve access to care.”

However, Cruser added that equating the two issues – mental health and mass shootings – is not productive. “It can actually be harmful because you have the unintentional impact of stigmatizing people with a mental illness, which then can cause additional trauma or discrimination for them,” he said. 

According to information provided by Mental Health America, exposure to violent events – such as mass shootings – is likely to cause trauma and lasting changes in the nervous system in both children and adults. Adverse childhood experiences, including exposure to all types of violence, and the toxic stress caused by fear of violence, are shown to negatively impact psychosocial engagement and increase the likelihood of a person developing mental health conditions at all stages of life. 

Nearly 50 percent of Americans experience a mental illness at any point in their lifetime – and these people are more frequently victims of violence rather than perpetrators. And a study by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) concluded that the vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent: Between 95 and 97% of homicidal gun violence is not carried out by individuals with a mental illness.

“The facts are that most people who engage in violence do not have a mental health issue,” Cruser said. “In fact, mental illness doesn’t cause violence, but violence is a cause of mental illness. Individuals with a mental illness are much more likely to be the victim of violence than the perpetrator.”

While Mental Health America of Virginia does not usually take a position on gun control legislation, Cruser said that the group supported the passage of Virginia’s Red Flag Law by a Democratic majority in both chambers of the General Assembly in 2020 as a means to prevent mass shootings. 

The law, which went into effect on July 1 that year, gives law enforcement or prosecutors the authority to petition a judge or magistrate to issue an emergency substantial risk order, valid for 14 days, against someone deemed a threat. However, authorities are first required to conduct an investigation, supported by an affidavit, before they can petition. If granted, the order allows authorities to seize a person’s weapons and prohibit the purchase of new firearms.

However, data shows that the type of gun violence mostly linked to mental illness is self-inflicted. A 2017 study by the Center for Disease Control found that 60% of gun-related deaths that year were from suicides, while 37% were murders. 

“More people die from gun inflicted suicide than any other impact, so we want to do everything we can when someone who is indicating behaviorally that they could be a risk to someone else or themselves, that they can get the support they need and not have access to lethal means,” Cruser said. 

The challenge in Virginia remains that the law is not being used consistently around the state, Cruser added. “I think there needs to be more training among all parties about what these laws mean and how to implement them. We really think they can save lives and do so without violating people’s rights, including the rights of people with mental illness.” 

Republicans tried to repeal the law earlier this year, but a Democratic-controlled Senate committee defeated a proposal sponsored by Del. Marie March, R-Floyd County, on a party-line vote.

Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, said that lawmakers should make gun control legislation a priority because the main cause for gun violence is “too many firearms on our streets,” which make it easier for someone to commit a mass shooting – in particular using semi-automatic rifles like an AR-15. “I certainly believe that these are weapons meant for war that should not be on our streets,” Rasoul said.

But Rasoul added that he still welcomes working with the Youngkin administration to “tackle the mental health crisis that we have in Virginia because our mental health system is woefully underfunded and under-resourced.” 

During its 2022 legislative session, the General Assembly – based on a Rasoul proposal – approved $750,000 to study the feasibility of transforming Catawba Hospital into a state-of-the-art campus offering substance abuse treatment and addiction recovery. And Rasoul plans to build on this first step by wanting to be “super aggressive with the next phase in the Catawba campus development, its ability to have access to mental health and substance abuse treatment.”

Deeds also hopes that he will be able to work with both Republicans and fellow Democrats in addressing challenges in the state’s mental health system while also getting more gun control measures in the books. 

“I know it’s difficult to reach consensus on any one single thing or set of things,” Deeds said. “But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to find something that we can agree on. We’re still working on it.”

Markus Schmidt

Markus Schmidt is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach him at markus@cardinalnews.org.