We Need to Stop Blaming Mental Illness for Mass Shootings

Research debunks that mental illness is the leading cause of mass shootings.

Posted Aug 13, 2019

The two shootings, first in El Paso, Texas, and then in Dayton, Ohio, are the latest instances of deadly mass shootings in 2019. As of Aug. 5, which was the 217th day of the year, there have been 255 mass shootings in the U.S., according to data from the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive, which tracks every mass shooting in the country.

The ongoing debate regarding gun laws vs. mental health disorders as the underlying cause of these mass shootings continues amongst the public and politicians alike. School shootings are now a common occurrence and seem to gain the most publicity. After the most recent shootings, President Donald Trump called for a cultural change as a way to stop the glorification of violence in the media and online, to end bigotry and to include new reforms to mental health laws.

However, his statements regarding mental health, referring to mass shooters as “mentally ill monsters” and suggesting “involuntary confinement” for some people with mental health disorders, were far from accurate.

Mental health disorders have a huge stigma in the United States, which often results in limited access to treatment. Individuals with mental health disorders are not monsters nor are they bad people but, in fact, are individuals from all walks of life who need even more encouragement and support from our community and our leaders.

Mental health disorders affect everyone: mothers, fathers, police officers, doctors, lawyers, the elderly, and government workers. It is very possible to live a healthy, happy, and successful life if one has a mental health disorder. But when our President continues to shun individuals with mental illness, and when we as a society continue to blame our mass shootings on mental illness, this only adds to the stigma.

Research debunks that mental illness is the underlying trigger.

The American Psychological Association (APA), the largest professional and scientific organization of psychologists in the United States, has stated over and over again that it is important for individuals to understand that there is a very weak link between mass shootings and mental illness.

In the 2016 book, Gun Violence and Mental Illness, researchers reported that mass shootings perpetrated by individuals with a serious mental illness accounted for less than 1% of all annual gun-related homicides. But yet, we as a society continue to blame mass shootings on mental illness, regardless of the research and facts.

According to the APA, “the overwhelming majority of people with mental illness are not violent and far more likely to be victims of violent crime than perpetrators of violence”.

Routinely blaming mass shootings on mental illness is unfounded and stigmatizing. Research has shown that only a very small percentage of violent acts are committed by people who are diagnosed with, or in treatment for, mental illness. The rates of mental illness are roughly the same around the world, yet other countries are not experiencing these traumatic events as often as we face them. One critical factor is access to, and the lethality of, the weapons that are being used in these crimes. Adding racism, intolerance, and bigotry to the mix is a recipe for disaster,” Phillips Davis, the president of the APA, states.

  • Around one in seven people globally (11-18 percent) has at least one mental health disorder. Globally, this means around one billion people in 2017 experienced a mental health disorder.
  • Nearly one in five U.S. adults in the United States lives with a mental health disorder (46.6 million in 2017).
  • About 40% of Americans say they own a gun or live in a household with one, according to a 2017 survey, and the rate of murder or manslaughter by firearm is the highest in the developed world. There were almost 11,000 deaths as a result of murder or manslaughter involving a firearm in 2017.
  • In 2017, gun-related killings were 73% of all homicides in the United States. This number was 38% in Canada, and 3% in England and Wales.
  • Statistics show that the U.S. has the most civilian gun owners in the world, with Yemen and Serbia having the second and third highest, respectively.

Blaming mental illness for mass shootings is stigmatizing.

Propagating a false narrative about mental illness, whether intentional or unintentional, further stigmatizes individuals who require care but are reluctant to seek care due to shame, fear, or concerns of adverse consequences.

Individuals with mental illness are more likely to commit suicide rather than homicide.

Studies have shown that the majority of individuals with a diagnosable mental illness are not violent towards others but are more likely to take their own lives as a means to end their own emotional and mental suffering. Suicide is twice as common as homicide among those who are battling a mental health disorder and suicide is also the second-leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 10-34 years old.

Racism, hate, and bigotry are not mental illnesses.

To blame gun violence on mental health alone is like saying the opioid epidemic is caused solely by prescribing physicians; when in fact, yes, some prescribing physicians may have a hand in it but neither picture is black and white.

An individual with a healthy mind, a happy upbringing, and limited access to firearms is far less likely to commit a violent act than, say, someone with access to a firearm who believes in hate, racism, and white supremacy. An individual with a mental illness may commit a mass shooting, but to automatically link mental illness and mass shootings is extremely far-fetched and only hurts the mental health community.

Underlying hate combined with easy access to firearms and the constant exposure to violence all make up a recipe for disaster. Yes, it may be true that an individual with a sound mind will not commit these heinous crimes, but an unsound mind does not necessarily mean that the individual has a diagnosable mental health disorder.

It can mean they are constantly surrounded, brainwashed so to speak, by violence, hate, and bigotry and can easily access a semi-automatic weapon. Maybe the individual suffered severe trauma or abuse as a child or was constantly bullied and beat up at school, or grew up in a family where they condemned all religions and skin colors except their own? Racism, hate, and bigotry are not mental illnesses.

How can we reduce gun violence?

In a recent article in Annals of Internal Medicine, a group of highly respected physician authors came together and proposed the following to reduce gun violence:

  • Requiring comprehensive criminal background checks for all firearm purchases, including those by gun dealers, at gun shows, and transfers between individuals.
  • More funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to research the causes and consequences of firearm-related injuries and deaths and develop strategies to reduce them.
  • Prohibiting gun sales to people who have been found guilty of crimes of violence against a family member or intimate partner, including dating partners.
  • Support for laws that penalize firearm owners who negligently store firearms under circumstances where children could or do gain access to them.
  • Improved screening, access to, and treatment for mental health disorders, since such disorders “play a critical role in reducing risk for self-harm and interpersonal violence.”
  • Passage of “Extreme Risk Protection Order” laws, which allow families and law enforcement officers to petition a judge to temporarily remove firearms from people thought to be at imminent risk for using guns to harm themselves or others.
  • Opposing state and federal mandates that forbid doctors from discussing a patient’s firearm ownership, since “providing anticipatory guidance on preventing injuries is something physicians do every day, and it is no different for firearms than for other injury prevention topics.” 
  • Instituting special scrutiny and regulation for high-capacity magazines and firearms with features designed to increase their rapidity and extend their killing capacity.