On Mental Health and Guns, Experts Ordered Not to Contradict President Trump’s Lies

August 21, 2019 | 2:06 pm
Photo: MarylandGovPics/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)
Michael Halpern
Former Contributor

As people searched for answers around the shootings in El Paso and Dayton, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services prevented its scientists from posting relevant research about guns, violence, and mental health on social media. According to the Washington Post, which broke the story, the orders came in the wake of the president’s incorrect suggestion that mental illness leads to mass shootings.

The president’s remarks harm our ability to address gun violence by misplacing the blame. But they also needlessly marginalize people with mental illness, making it less likely that they will seek help and more likely that they will be viewed with suspicion. The evidence shows that a minority of mass shooters have diagnosed mental illness. Instead, they are more likely to have “a strong sense of resentment, desire for notoriety, obsession with other shooters, a history of domestic violence, narcissism and access to firearms,” reports the Post.

But the public relations people at HHS didn’t think it was their job to help you learn more about the causes of mass violence. They didn’t care about increasing stigma for people with mental illness. They thought it was more important to protect the president’s untruths.

In other words, as we experience hundreds of multiple-victim shootings per year, and as many thousands take their own lives, it was more important to the public affairs folks for President Trump to save face than for scientists to tell us what they know. And the CDC and National Institutes of Health can’t tell you about what the science says about health.

“There is this climate of concern whether you can make a statement based on facts,” a NIH employee told the Post. “I see people struggling with how to interpret it. What are we allowed to do?”

If there’s ever a time to clarify these expectations, it is now. The Scientific Integrity Act before Congress would provide federal experts with legal protections for sharing facts with the American people.

When I testified before Congress about this important legislation, I spoke about how federal government scientists do not feel empowered to share their expertise publicly. This is simply one more data point to show that when scientists are muzzled, our health and safety suffer.

By now, federal government scientists know that when the president lies, they should keep their mouths shut. They face ever-increasing restrictions on their ability to speak with reporters and share scientific information with the public.

We should be able to hear what research shows about gun violence and homegrown terrorist attacks. Only then can we have an informed discussion about how to stop them. Profound gun violence research restrictions already leave us in the dark. And censoring scientists from sharing what we do know makes it even worse.

We are under attack by people in our own country. Our president has become like so many other politicians in his unwillingness to acknowledge what is behind the carnage. And now, federal agency scientists are expected to fall in line and walk in lock step. This is not how we stop people from dying.