As reactions poured in to the latest school shooting in Florida, President Trump focused on the young man’s mental health, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions said he wants the Justice Department to study how mental illness and gun violence intersect, to better understand how law enforcement can better use existing laws to intervene before these school shootings happen. “Florida governor vows to keep mentally ill from guns,”
As usual, the administration has it all wrong. Laying the blame on mental illness for gun violence is blaming a symptom and not attacking the cause. Of course, the Trump administration finds easy targets in the mentally ill. What group is more politically helpless and devoid of a voice?
In today’s media reports about mental illness, there is a tendency to emphasize a supposed link between violence and mental illness. News stories regularly suggest that there is a strong connection between mental illness and crime. But the majority of people who are violent do not suffer from mental illnesses. In fact, people with a mental illness are more likely to be the victims, rather than the perpetrators of violence. The Myth of Violence and Mental Illness. Current research shows that people with major mental illness are 2.5 times more likely to be the victims of violence than other members of society. This most often occurs when such factors as poverty, transient lifestyle and substance use are present. Id. The relationship of mental illness and violence by asking three questions: Are the mentally ill violent? Are the mentally ill at increased risk of violence? Are the public at risk? Mental disorders are neither necessary nor sufficient causes of violence. Heather Stuart, “Violence and mental illness: an overview,” World Psychiatry, 2(2): 121–124 (June 2003).
Mass shootings generally account for 1% or less of all firearm violence, and suicides routinely take twice as many lives as homicides. The public health impact of firearms in the United States is staggering. A pernicious and false but increasingly common message promoted in the media is that people with mental illness are prone to violence in general and are responsible for mass shootings. McGinty EE, Kennedy-Hendricks A, Choksy S, Barry CL. Trends in news media coverage of mental illness in the United States: 1995–2014; McGinty EE, Webster DW, Jarlenski M, Barry CL. News media framing of serious mental illness and gun violence in the United States, 1997–2012. Am J Public Health. 2014b;104(3):406–13. Studies consistently indicate that, even among mass murders and shootings, mental illness is a factor in a minority of these events. Duwe G. The patterns and prevalence of mass murder in twentieth-century America. Justice Q. 2004;21(4):729–61; Fox JA, DeLateur MJ. Mass shootings in America: moving beyond Newtown. Homicide Stud. 2014;18(1):125–45; Stone MH. Mass murder, mental illness, and men, Violence Gend. 2015;2(1):51–86;Taylor MA. A comprehensive study of mass murder precipitants and motivations of offenders. Int J Offender Ther Comp Criminol. 2016. Nonetheless, the notion that mental illness drives these events is stoked regularly, and the impact of this trend in US media coverage of violence is so significant that it is now seen to be distorting perceptions even outside of the United States. Jorm AF, Reavley NJ. Public belief that mentally ill people are violent: Is the USA exporting stigma to the rest of the world? Aust N Z J Psychiatry. 2014;48(3):213–15
The notoriety given to mass shootings and the link made to mental illness have two effects. First, they promote stigma by conflating mental illness and violence—a bias that affects patients, providers, the public, and policy makers. Clement S, Schauman O, Graham T, Maggioni F, Evans-Lacko S, et al. What is the impact of mental health-related stigma on help-seeking? A systematic review of quantitative and qualitative studies (stigma has a negative effect on help seeking); Price JH, Khubchandani J, Payton E. Vision impaired or professionally blind health education research and firearm violence
Finally and more importantly,, they distract the public and policy makers from dealing with the issues of violence and mental illness, and gun violence in particular, in an empirically grounded, frank way.