A girl runs on stage as Pope Francis leads his general audience in Paul VI Hall at the Vatican Aug. 21. The pope allowed the girl with an undisclosed illness to move around undisturbed clapping and dancing on the stage. (CNS photo/Remo Casilli, Reuters)

The truth about mental illness and mass shootings

Originally Appeared in : 9918-8/29/19

Imagine if it were determined that 20% of mass killers were afflicted with diabetes. Imagine if the public discourse revolved around diabetes being a factor that prompted them to commit their horrific crimes. On the face of it, the idea of blaming diabetes for mass murder seems absurd and insulting to people who have diabetes. But the same argument is being made about mental illness and gun violence, linking horrific massacres to people who suffer from mental illness. And too many of us buy into this argument without evidence, awareness, and sensitivity to the millions who suffer from mental illness.


So how did we get to the place in our discourse when most of us can cite mental illness as a cause of gun violence without any real pushback? I admit to being someone who believed in that connection before I was enlightened in 2013 by a mental health professional who spoke at a gun violence forum I coordinated at my parish in the months after the Sandy Hook massacre. 


The psychologist who spoke opened my eyes to a fact I hadn’t considered before. Most mass killers plan their crimes with great precision and diligence. Being capable of planning and executing a mass shooting is not a symptom of mental illness. The psychologist suggested that people who suffer from diagnosable mental illness, especially schizophrenia, would not be able to plan such deeds. He also pointed out that most people with mental illness are not violent. He said we should focus our attention on rage, a common emotion among mass shooters. 


In an August 8, 2019 opinion piece “Why Mass Murderers May Not be Very Different from You and Me” in the New York Times, Richard A. Friedman, a psychiatrist, makes a similar point. He points to evidence that mass killings and mental illness do not usually overlap. 


He writes: “One of the largest studies of mass killers, conducted by Dr. Michael Stone and involving 350 people, found that only 20% had psychotic illness; the other 80% had no diagnosable mental illness — just the everyday stress, anger, jealousy, and unhappiness the rest of us have.” 


He also includes reference to an FBI study. Studying active shooters between 2000 and 2013, the FBI determined that only 25% had ever received a psychiatric diagnosis and only 5% were afflicted with a psychotic illness.


We are prone, perhaps, to point to mental illness because we cannot imagine how a rational human being can commit such atrocities. But we do not have to look deep into history to see that atrocities against innocents have long been considered “rational” acts by people intent on destroying others. Genocide. Lynchings. Terrorism. Should we blame these on mental illness? Of course not.


Dr. Friedman reports that mental illness contributes to only 3% of violent crime in America. 


He writes: “The scary truth is that ordinary human hatred and aggression are far more dangerous than any psychiatric illness.” 


For thousands of years, people who suffer from mental illness have been mistreated, misunderstood, accused of being possessed, and blamed for their illness. In Jesus’ time, we surmise that people in the Gospel who were described as being possessed by demons were, in fact, suffering from mental illness. 


Mental illness is actually quite common in the United States. And many people who at some point in their lives suffer from mental illness are capable and contributing members of society. Consider this statistic from the National Institute of Health:


“In 2017, there were an estimated 46.6 million adults aged 18 or older in the United States with AMI [Any Mental Illness]. This number represented 18.9% of all U.S. adults.” (According to the site “Any mental illness (AMI) is defined as a mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder. AMI can vary in impact, ranging from no impairment to mild, moderate, and even severe impairment.”): https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/mental-illness.shtml#part_154785\


In response to mass shootings, those who advocate better mental health programs rarely do anything to follow up on that solution. Indeed, many of these same people pointing to mental illness want to reduce access to Medicaid and other government programs that serve mentally ill people. Blaming mental illness makes for an easy scapegoat to distract us from looking at more logical solutions to gun violence. 


If you’re like I was and have been prone to see mental illness as a contributing factor to gun violence, you may find it unsettling to realize that the majority of these killers are driven by rage, not illness, to commit these acts. 


As Catholics, we have the obligation to educate ourselves about mental illness and advocate for better treatment and greater acceptance of people who are diagnosed as mentally ill. And we also have an obligation to stand up for them when they are unfairly cast as potential killers. 


Dr. Friedman writes: “… bolstering mental health programs — while a worthy goal — will not solve our mass shootings epidemic. More effective policies might involve gun control, including enhancing background checks and expanding so-called extreme risk protection orders, which allow law enforcement to temporarily remove firearms from people deemed potentially violent.” 


Mary Hood Hart is a freelance writer and educator living in Pittsboro, NC. She can be reached at maryhoodhart@gmail.com

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