Gun Violence and Mental Health

Gun Violence and Mental Health

May 03, 2018

Mental Health

With 8 mass shootings over the past year in the United States, such horrendous events do not feel so infrequent. Naturally, our reaction is to want to understand why, to wish for a clear and concrete answer that helps us to grasp how such a horrible thing could happen. In recent times, the wake of a mass shooting prompts conversation about gun violence and mental illness. Why is that? Is it because it is true? That mass shootings are most often carried out by mentally ill individuals? This certainly would be a clear and crisp answer, for which we could draw conclusions that improving access to mental health care and restricting mentally ill individuals from gun ownership would cure our country of this condition that results in a mass shooting every 1-2 months. But like most things in life, the answers to these questions are a little more complicated.

Ok, let's start with the facts. Evidence-based research concludes that "mass shootings by people with serious mental illness represent less than 1% of all yearly gun-related homicides. The overall contribution of people with serious mental illness to violent crimes is only about 3%" (American Psychiatric Association, 2016). Furthermore, "evidence is clear that the large majority of people with mental disorders do not engage in violence against others, and that most violent behavior is due to factors other than mental illness." Other studies estimate that the percent of violent crimes due to mental illness is about 4%, which means that at least "96% of violent crimes in the United States have nothing to do with mental illness" (NAMI Montgomery County). So, what's the bottom line? Joe Dvoskin, PhD, licensed psychologist, and expert on this topic summarizes the point nicely: "The short version is that while people with serious mental illness are slightly more likely to commit acts of violence than people without mental illness, the risk that it creates is pretty small compared to other known risk factors. For example, current substance abuse."

So if mental illness is actually only a very small factor in understanding violent crimes, how do the two issues get so intertwined in the discussions following mass shootings? According to Jeffrey Swanson, a professor at Duke University, mental illness being responsible for acts of mass violence is a myth. A myth that is so pervasive, that "people speculate about killers' mental states, even in the absence of any evidence that they were living with any disorder" (NAMI Montgomery County). Emma McGinty, a professor of public health policy at Johns Hopkins University explains how this complicates our attempts at making sense of mass shootings: "anyone who kills someone else in a mass shooting scenario or otherwise is not what we would consider mentally healthy. But that does not mean they have a clinical diagnosis and therefore a treatable mental illness. There could be emotional regulation issues related to anger, for example, which are a separate phenomenon. There could be underlying substance use issues. There could be a whole host of other risk factors for violence going on."

What's the harm, you might ask, in trying to make this complicated topic a little more clean? Stigma. Stigma around mental health continues to be a big barrier for those who could benefit from mental health care. It prevents people from seeking treatment and getting the help they need; it prevents people from reaching out to others and sharing about their struggles with mental health issues; and it impacts how we as a culture make assumptions about individuals struggling with mental illness.

FamilyMeans Center for Grief & Loss provides mental health services for individuals, couples, and families, and specializes in supporting those healing from complicated grief and trauma. If you need support working through life's many challenges, contact us today at 651-641-0177.