The mental illness myth: People like me aren’t the cause of America’s mass shooting epidemic

A nation in mourning, again.
A nation in mourning, again.
Image: Reuters/Mario Anzuoni
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I am a 35-year-old white female. I am a single mother in New York City. And I am living with panic disorder and depression—both, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—are considered mental illnesses. So, to clarify, I am a person living with mental illness in the US, and under the Second Amendment and current gun laws, I also have the right to own a gun. Am I scaring you yet?

On Dec. 2, several heavily armed individuals opened fire in a social services center in San Bernardino, California, killing at least 14 people and injuring many more. While the motives of the shooters are still being worked out, many earliest reactions relied on familiar rhetoric—the murderers must have been “crazy.”

“What we have seen—and a common theme among many of these mass shootings—is a theme of mental illness,” House Speaker Paul Ryan told CBS This Morning on Dec. 3.

A lifetime of stigma

He’s not totally wrong–but he’s not totally right, either. Mental illness affects 450 million people in the world today. Many of those people are like me—I am also a mother, a writer, a daughter, a sister, a teacher, a volunteer at a local no-kill animal shelter, a mental health advocate, and, I would like to think, an empathetic human being. I have no urge to walk into a public institution and kill people, nor do the vast majority of people with mental health issues.

The gunman responsible for the deaths of nine people in Oregon in October was also referred to as having mental health problems. Yet mental illness doesn’t make people buy a gun any more than it makes them fire it. When someone walks into a school and opens fire with semiautomatic weapons, we can’t just say “mental illness,” shrug our shoulders and walk away. Nor can we scream “mental illness” and start pointing fingers. The reality is this: Most people living with mental illness are not dangerous, and each mass shooting seems to bring us dangerously closer to equating the two.

“Mental illness is a term that covers a wide range of conditions—everything from serious depression to ADHD,” Dr. John Grohol, a psychologist and the founder of website Psych Central, tells Quartz. “There are a lot of misconceptions about how a person is actually diagnosed with a mental illness or what it’s like to live with. Since research shows that people with a mental illness are generally no more likely to be perpetrators of violence, it’s stigmatizing and prejudiced to believe that all mass shooters are also mentally ill.”

When I read articles blaming mental illness for shockingly violent acts, I myself feel physically ill. Because mental illness, generally doesn’t imply violence or brutality, nor does it imply psychopathy or cruelty. The question, then, is how to identify the individuals who are at most risk for this type of behavior and intervene before it’s too late.

Besides being inaccurate, casting all mentally ill people as dangerous can do more harm than we realize. Dr. Bart Rossi, PhD, is a clinical psychologist who has worked to influence policy and remove mental illness stigma from American society. “The stigma associated with mental health is so great that parents are afraid to bring their children to a psychologist because of the fear of having them ‘labeled,’” Rossi tells Quartz.

This stigma permeates every part of society. Caitlin Kelly, author of Blown Away: American Women and Guns, tells Quartz that during her research she’s noted a decided difference in the way individuals in other countries deal with mental health. “In other countries—the UK, Canada, France—you have different ways of sharing information about health. In America, [mental health professionals] are afraid to ask the question ‘is there a gun in the home?’ because they are afraid to get sued.”

Hard truths

Clearly, mental health and gun control intersect. Sheila Hamilton, an award-winning journalist and author whose husband committed suicide, believes that both these issues are important to ending gun violence. “Is it a gun control issue? You bet it is. Is it a problem for the mental health community? Unequivocally. It’s not either, or. It’s both,” she tells Quartz. “The majority of mentally ill people will never commit an act of violence, but I’m in favor of temporary gun restrictions on the few who demonstrate intent. It would go a long way in reducing mass shootings and the epidemic of suicide.”

But before we can start working on the sort of nuanced, intentional guidelines Hamilton is referring to, we’re going to have to do some national soul-searching. According to a paper published by the American Public Health Association in February, the connection between mental illness and mass shootings has more to do with cultural stereotypes than it does with statistics:

Four assumptions frequently arise in the aftermath of mass shootings in the United States: (1) that mental illness causes gun violence, (2) that psychiatric diagnosis can predict gun crime, (3) that shootings represent the deranged acts of mentally ill loners, and (4) that gun control “won’t prevent” another Newtown (Connecticut school mass shooting). Each of these statements is certainly true in particular instances. Yet, as we show, notions of mental illness that emerge in relation to mass shootings frequently reflect larger cultural stereotypes and anxieties about matters such as race/ethnicity, social class, and politics. These issues become obscured when mass shootings come to stand in for all gun crime, and when “mentally ill” ceases to be a medical designation and becomes a sign of violent threat.

That’s a potentially tough pill for society to swallow, but it’s also an important one.

Could the shootings in Oregon, Sandy Hook or Aurora shooting have been prevented with better care for mental illness? Possibly. There’s no doubt this country could use better mental health resources. But the people predisposed to violence don’t have “aggressive” tattooed on their foreheads, and gun-shop owners aren’t mind readers.

“If we were able to magically cure schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression, that would be wonderful, but overall violence would go down by only about four percent,” Dr. Jeffrey Swanson, a professor of psychiatry at Duke, told ProPublica in 2014.

Instead of lumping millions of mentally ill people together or looking for a miracle pill that will “cure” our mass shooting epidemic, we need to be looking at how we create stronger support networks and a more sophisticated understanding of our most complicated societal problems—mass shootings and mental illness among them. As Matthew Cooper wrote in Newsweek in October: “It’s the difference between causation and correlation, as the social scientists put it: The sun doesn’t come up because the rooster crows, even if they happen at the same time.”