Blaming violence on mental illness has become routine for legislators and law enforcement, just like performatively offering thoughts and prayers to the victims of mass violence and their families. In the aftermath of a mass shooting, without fail, claims asserting the shooter’s mental status are reported, often amplified to propose a clear trending pattern linking the two. Following the 2019 mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, President Donal Trump said that “mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger, not the gun” (Business Insider). Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Mayor Don McLaughlin followed the same trend after the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas (NEWS4SA). In the U.S, the prevalence of mass shootings is seen as a result of a failing mental health system (Gallup). However, the link between them is not that clear-cut.
A 2013 national public opinion survey found that 46% of U.S. adults felt that people with serious mental illness (SMI) were more dangerous than the general population, despite SMI contributing to about 3-5% of all violence (NEJM, SAMHSA). The survey was conducted one month after the Sandy Hook shooting.
• Donate to Immigrants Rising, Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective, and Asian Mental Health Collective providing mental health resources and support.
• Support and use peer support and crisis hotlines that don’t coordinate with the police.
• Learn how you can end gun violence in your community, including demanding local representatives ban assault rifles.
The perception that mental illness makes a person inherently violent is unsupported and dangerous, especially considering that 25% of Americans will experience mental illness in a given year (CDC, NBC News). Still, scapegoating mental health has become the country’s solution to violence.
Studies have shown that people with mental illness are more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence and crime (American Journal of Public Health, JAMA Psychiatry), and that police encounters often result in death. Law enforcement has fatally shot more than 1,600 people with a mental illness since 2015, with those with untreated diagnoses being 16 times more likely to be killed during an encounter with the police (Washington Post, Treatment Advocacy Center).
And when it comes to gun violence, suicide has accounted for the majority of U.S. gun deaths since the CDC began publishing data in 1981 (CDC, Pew Research). Learn the warning signs of suicide and how to effectively help those in need or looking for support.
Calls for more police surveillance on social media are often aimed at people with mental illness or extremist beliefs in hopes that with more scrutiny comes the deterrence of mass shootings and other tragedies. Yet, mental illness is less of a predictor of violence. A history of physical abuse or trauma, being young and male, having lower socioeconomic status, and substance use was associated with an increased risk of gun violence devoid of mental illness (NAMICA, Annals of Epidemiology).
In studying the behaviors of active shooters in the U.S. from 2000 to 2013, the FBI could verify only 25% were diagnosed with a mental illness ranging from mood to personality disorders to Autism (FBI). The FBI reports that attempts to declare all active shooters mentally ill were “misleading and unhelpful.”
Following the Uvalde school shooting, statements from Texas officials like Gov. Abbott, who cut $211 million from Texas Health and Human Services Commission a month prior, blamed mental illness for the violence (Texas Public Radio). He received pushback from mental health advocates, including the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
“Pointing to mental illness doesn’t get us closer as a nation to solving the problem and doing so leads to discrimination and stigma against those with mental illness — who are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators. People across the globe live with mental illness, but only in the U.S. do we have an epidemic of senseless and tragic mass shootings” (NAMI). These continual violent events, they point out, affect our collective mental health.
Associating mental illness with violence, specifically mass shootings, hasn’t inspired necessary funding for state mental health programs, but it has further stigmatized mental health and discouraged people from seeking treatment.
It also gives the Buffalo and Uvalde shooters, bigoted public figures, and our collective consciousness at large an out for violent behavior and rhetoric. It’s easier to deflect to mental health than acknowledge how and why a celebrity would threaten to go “death con 3” on Jewish people; why an 18-year-old would murder Black customers using an assault weapon with the N-word spelled out on the barrel; or how a person considered a significant threat to themselves or others can legally obtain firearms. The senseless of such attacks and violence is challenging to reconcile and rationalize. But racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, sexist, xenophobic, Islamaphobic, and transphobic attacks are not symptoms of mental illness. Using mental illness as a political talking point does not prevent the cycle of violence and tragedy made possible by absent gun reform, unaddressed extremist unrest, and underfunded public services. Instead, it pushes these violent events back to the recesses of our minds until the next tragedy demands our attention.
• A person’s mental status is often used to explain mass shootings and other acts of violence.
• Mental illness does not make a person predisposed to violent behavior.
• People with mental health issues are more likely to be victims of violence.