For years, psychologists, politicians, and policymakers have debated whether or not mental illness causes mass shootings. Due to the high rates of mental health disorders and the increase in mass shootings in the United States, people have begun to assume that the two are inevitably related. Following the occurrence of another tragic mass shooting in Lewiston, Maine, which resulted in at least 18 fatalities, the question “Does mental illness cause mass shootings?” has resurfaced in the media. People are quick to make this assumption, but what does science say?
Research has suggested that some, but not all, individuals who commit mass shootings exhibit signs of mental illness or have been previously diagnosed with a mental health disorder. Those who commit mass shootings are also reported likely to experience suicidal ideation, which is often attributable to symptoms of mental illness. But can we always argue that mental illness is a prerequisite for mass shootings? Another body of research has suggested that this is not the case.
Mental illness and the likelihood of violence. Over 50% of Americans will receive a diagnosis of a mental health disorder at some point in their life. The number of mass shootings in the United States is relatively tiny compared with the large number of people struggling with mental illness of some kind. One epidemiological report asserts that when people who experience mental illness do act violently, they generally do so for the same reasons as people who do not have mental health issues; they act out of feelings of anger, frustration, or fear, which are not directly related to mental illness.
The DSM-5 includes only two disorders out of 297 that are characterized by a significant risk of violence towards others: antisocial personality disorder (ASPD) and substance use disorders (SUD). Although many individuals with ASPD and SUD are reported to engage in violence, many still do not. Thus, the vast majority of DSM-5 disorders are not directly linked to violent behavior.
Contrary to popular belief, individuals diagnosed with mental health disorders are more likely to be victims rather than perpetrators of violent crime. The reason is that some with mental illness are more vulnerable than those without, sometimes due to inconsistent medication, social isolation related to some disorders, and the misconception that those with mental health diagnoses are weak or incompetent. This only adds to the negative misconceptions that many people hold about those with mental health issues.
Stigma surrounding mental illness and mass shootings. Part of the reason why people tend to believe that mental illness directly causes mass shootings is the stigma that surrounds mental disorders. Many people believe the “deranged shooter” narrative, which assumes that those with severe mental illness are very likely to be violent towards others. The portrayal of mental illness in the media and in the news may account for some of these negative stereotypes. Studies have found that the media portrayal of mental illness results in an increase in negative attitudes towards those with mental health disorders. American Horror Story: Asylum and Split are two examples of popular media that represent mental illness inaccurately and perhaps offensively. Moreover, many conservative news outlets tend to represent mental illness in a derogative, stigmatizing manner. Political pundit Ann Coulter has repeatedly argued that “guns don’t kill people; the mentally ill do.” Such harmful stereotypes, which are often based on nothing more than opinion, are frequently used to discriminate against those with psychiatric diagnoses.
The implications of mental illness and firearm possession. The United States has a higher rate of firearm homicides, as well as the highest rate of firearm ownership compared to most other countries. Yet, many still believe that the rate of mass shootings is solely a “mental health problem.” In accordance with this belief, policymakers in the United States have attempted to prohibit or restrict only those with mental illness from possessing firearms for fear that this combination increases the rate of mass shootings. However, those who have a mental health disorder and own a firearm are not necessarily more likely to commit gun crimes. Only 5% of the gun-related homicides that occurred in the United States between 2001 and 2020 were committed by individuals who had been previously diagnosed with some psychiatric disorder. Attempting to prohibit only those with mental health disorders from possessing a firearm only perpetuates the narrative that people with mental illness are dangerous and should be feared, despite what the empirical research says.
Rethinking the link between mental illness and gun violence. It should be noted that mental illness is a much stronger correlate of suicide than violence towards others. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, an estimated 46% of people who die by suicide had a previously diagnosed mental health condition. However, this percentage does not include the number of individuals who go undiagnosed for mental illness and die by suicide. Certain disorders, including depression, anxiety, personality disorders, and trauma-related disorders, are shown to pose more of a suicide risk than others. Furthermore, in the argument of firearm possession, much research in this area has suggested that it is more likely that the combination of mental illness and owning a firearm will predict a suicide attempt, long before it predicts violence towards others.
What’s next? Suicide is currently one of the leading causes of death in the United States.If society shifts the narrative from ‘mental illness causes violence’ to ‘mental illness is a risk factor for suicide.’ we may be able to create more outlets for those with mental health conditions to seek help. Thus, understanding the different intervention and prevention tactics and knowing who is at risk may help create societal change.
Crisis hotlines, for example, are phone lines that people can call if they feel that they may make a suicide attempt. Recent studies have suggested that crisis hotlines may be highly effective in preventing callers from attempting suicide and keeping callers safe. Other preventative methods, including the installation of protective fences on bridges, have been shown to reduce the occurrence of suicide.
Shifting the narrative may also serve to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness. The negative perceptions and media portrayals of mental illness not only continue to push harmful stereotypes but are another known risk factor for suicide attempts. Many suggest that talking about suicide, in addition to various available interventions, may reduce these stereotypes. One study found a slight decrease in stigma of mental illness in response to watching a suicide prevention video. Further studies have suggested that programs addressing mental health stigma have successfully improved suicide prevention. The discussion of the importance of suicide intervention and prevention brings awareness to the actual risks associated with mental illness.
Therefore, rather than allowing the narrative that mental illness alone causes mass shootings to continue, researchers and the public can take the initiative. Through educating others, being aware of the existing suicide intervention and prevention strategies, and advocating for the reduction of mental health stigma, we may be able to end the narrative that mental illness is a direct cause of mass shootings.
About the Author: Chloe Stanfa is currently a graduate student at Rhode Island College, working towards her master’s degree in psychology. Her research interests include identifying the motives behind self-directed aggression versus externally directed aggression with consideration to psychological disorders. Chloe aims to obtain her doctoral degree in clinical psychology. https://www.linkedin.com/in/chloestanfa/
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