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Mass Shooters Aren't Inherently Mentally Ill

False depictions of mental illness in the wake of the Newtown shooting

In our sound byte driven, "dumbed down" media landscape of the 21st century, it is no surprise that when tragedies such as the recent school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut occur, that news oftentimes reduces the event down to one single issue. Guns. Mental illness. Bad Parenting. Certainly, based on my own research I have been an advocate of promoting stricter gun laws and restrictions to access to firearms as a means to reduce the likelihood of such senseless violence. I was similarly very vocal in advocating for gun restrictions in the wake of this tragedy. This argument is not just about prevalence of guns, however, it is looking at the values embedded and ingrained within gun subcultures that also promote violence. Oftentimes, this nuance is lost in the gun debate.

An even greater distortion by the media that repeatedly happens in the wake of tragedies such as this one is the broad use of the term "mental illness" in describing the perpetrator or action for "mental health services," as if this will solve the problem of violence in America. Let me be clear: obviously, as a psychologist, I am an advocate for increasing public access to and awareness of mental health issues and services. However, the notion that the motives of perpetrators such as Adam Lazan can be explained by the default "mental illness" rejoinder is misleading and wildly inaccurate. Such depictions serve to reinforce the persistent stigma associated with mental illness: namely, that the mentally ill are violent and unstable. It also serves to disguise the fact that the majority of Americans will experience symptoms of psychopathology, if not a diagnosable mental illness, over the course of their lives. The majority of us, whether mentally ill or not, however, will not become perpetrators to mass shootings such as this one. Clearly, the mental illness explanation falls short of adequately explaining the roots of this act of violence.

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In fact, only about 4% of the violence that happens in the United States can be attributed to mental illness (Friedman, 2012). In rare cases when the mentally ill are dangerous, they are actually far more dangerous to themselves than they are to others, and most dangerous after self to family members and people they know rather than the general public. In fact, alcohol consumption puts one at far higher risk for becoming violent than does mental illness, and yet, is that binge drinker stigmatized or feared as the mentally ill are?

The focus on mental illness in the wake of this tragedy is misguided and misleading. In fact, it serves as a distraction in identifying more salient features regarding both Lanza's personal history and influences of the larger culture that more directly contributed to the violence that he recently unleashed. Indeed, Friedman (2012) writes perhaps the best recent article I have been able to uncover that has righted the wrongs of false depictions of the mentally ill in the aftermath of the shooting. He shares:

All the focus on the small number of people with mental illness who are violent serves to make us feel safer by displacing and limiting the threat of violence to a small, well-defined group. But the sad and frightening truth is that the vast majority of homicides are carried out by outwardly normal people in the grip of all too ordinary human aggression to whom we provide nearly unfettered access to deadly force. (Friedman, 2012, p. 1)

The coverage by reporters, commentators, and everyday people trying to make sense of the tragedy through social networking sites and regular conversations should serve as a cautionary tale in how we talk about and present mental illness. Unfortunately, it is just that type of narrative that perpetuates the stigma that the mentally ill are deranged and dangerous. They are not, and even if mental illness is present among a perpetrator of a violent act (which remains to be seen with this specific case) this does not inherently mean that the mental illness caused the violence itself.

In the wake of such tragedies, we want to make sense of such senseless bloodshed and loss. This search for an explanation can offer comfort and restore a sense of logic when such an irrational and unpredictable act of violence shakes our very foundation and sense of justice in this world. Alas, there are no easy answers, and when we promote uninformed ones, this contributes even more harm than good, whether or not that is our intention.

Friedman, R. (2012). A Misguided Focus on Mental Illness. New York Times: Health Section. Retrieved online at: http://mobile.nytimes.com/2012/12/18/health/a-misguided-focus-on-mental-illness-in-gun-control-debate.xml

Copyright 2012 Azadeh Aalai

Azadeh Aalai, PhD, is a Tenure-Track, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Queensborough Community College in New York.

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