UVALDE, Texas — Gov. Greg Abbott said Wednesday that the Uvalde school shooter had a "mental health challenge" and the state needed to "do a better job with mental health" — yet in April he slashed $211 million from the department that oversees mental health programs.
In addition, Texas ranked last out of all 50 states and the District of Columbia for overall access to mental health care, according to the 2021 State of Mental Health in America report.
"We as a state, we as a society, need to do a better job with mental health," Abbott said during a news conference at Robb Elementary School, where a gunman shot and killed 19 children and two teachers on Tuesday.
His remarks came just a day after an outraged Connecticut senator called out lawmakers opposed to gun control who seek to blame mental illness for the most recent school shooting and others before it.
In rejecting suggestions that stronger gun control laws could have prevented the tragedy, Abbott conceded the slain 18-year-old suspect had no known mental health issues or criminal history but said, "Anybody who shoots somebody else has a mental health challenge.”
His assertions drew rebukes from public health experts and scholars who study mass murderers, as well as from his Democratic gubernatorial rival Beto O’Rourke, who was ejected from the news conference after storming the stage and accusing the pro-gun Republican of “doing nothing” to stop gun violence.
“There is no evidence the shooter is mentally ill, just angry and hateful,” said Lori Post, director of the Buehler Center for Health Policy and Economics at the Northwestern University School of Medicine. “While it is understandable that most people cannot fathom slaughtering small children and want to attribute it to mental health, it is very rare for a mass shooter to have a diagnosed mental health condition.”
David Riedman, founder of the Center for Homeland Defense and Security’s K-12 School Shooting Database, said, "Overall, mass shooters are rational. They have a plan. It’s something that develops over months or years, and there’s a clear pathway to violence.”
The much bigger problem, they said, is Texas and many other states are awash in weapons.
“Texas has more guns per capita than any other state,” Post said. “After the tragic 2019 mass shooting in El Paso, the governor signed several bills to curb mass shootings; unfortunately, most of those bills involved arming the public to stop mass shooters."
Post pointed out that police officers trained in active shootings were injured Tuesday. She and others said that even if mental illness were the root cause of the elementary school shooting, local officials have historically shortchanged programs to help people with psychological problems.
Last year, The Houston Chronicle published a three-part series that showed Texas leaders failed to adequately fund or manage the state’s eroding mental health system.
In addition, conservative parenting groups in Texas and elsewhere have targeted school-based mental health initiatives, including programs meant to help students manage their emotions. Critics claim the programs are a “Trojan horse” for critical race theory, a separate and rarely taught academic concept that examines how systemic racism is embedded in society.
In Uvalde County, a mostly rural area where a fifth of the 24,456 mostly Latino residents live in poverty, the money budgeted for “health and welfare” has ranged in recent years from $2.8 million to $3.8 million, records show.
“I hesitate to comment on how much a county should be spending because mental illness cannot fairly be blamed as the primary driver of mass shootings,” said Greg Hansch, who heads the Texas chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “People with mental illness are more likely to be victims of mass shootings than perpetrators of mass shootings. Less than 10 percent of shootings involved a suspect who had mental health issues."
Dr. Sadiya Khan, an assistant professor at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, said that while mental health programs need more funding, "it will not eliminate the need for gun control."
"All it takes is one person to get one gun to ruin hundreds of lives," she said. "Our children’s lives depend on gun control.”
Tamar Mendelson, a professor in the mental health department at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said that while it’s difficult to put a dollar figure on what it will take to ease the nation's mental health crisis, it's clear the U.S. “doesn’t invest enough in mental health.”
“We also do not take a preventative approach,” Mendelson said. “We don’t do it enough in school settings, where we can provide critically needed care to young people. And we lack ‘culturally competent’ care, like for example, Spanish-speaking therapists.”
On Tuesday, after learning about the Texas massacre, Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., pleaded with his Republican colleagues to ditch the old excuses.
“Spare me the bullshit about mental illness,” Murphy said. “We don’t have any more mental illness than any other country in the world. You cannot explain this through a prism of mental illness."
Hixenbaugh reported from Uvalde and Siemaszko from New York.