This post is a part of our Bioethics in the News series
By Devan Stahl, PhD
Over the past two months, we have witnessed two more mass shootings in Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs, TX. Once again, these incidents bring up the debates surrounding gun legislation and access to mental health care. In reference to the Texas shooting, President Trump commented, “This is a mental health problem at the highest level. It’s a very, very sad event.” Soon after, it was revealed that Devin Kelley, the Texas shooter, had briefly escaped from a mental hospital in 2012 after he made death threats against his superiors in the Air Force. Both the president and the media emphasized the connection between mental illness and mass shootings. In fact, Johns Hopkins University found that over one-third of all news stories about mental illness were connected to violence. Psychiatric journals are also more likely to publish articles connecting mental illness with aggression than mental illness and victimhood, even though persons with mental illness are ten times more likely to be victims of violent crimes, including police shootings. It is no wonder that 63% of Americans blame mass shootings on the failure of the mental health system.
When confronted with a mass shooting, it is hard not to assume that mass shooters are mentally ill. After all, what sane person could commit such a horrible act? The media and even psychiatric professionals are quick to look for associations between mental illness and mass shootings. After Adam Lanza took the lives of twenty children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School, new research on the brains of mass shooters began. More recently, the brain of Stephen Paddock, who killed 59 people in Las Vegas, was shipped to the Las Vegas coroner’s office for a neuropathological examination to look for any “mental aberrance” to explain his behavior, even though neuropathologists admit correlating brain structures with behavior is “cloudy business.”
Research shows us, however, that the link between gun violence and mental illness is far more complicated than it would appear. In general, it is hard to generalize about mass shooters because they are relatively rare. Although there is some evidence to show persons with severe or untreated mental illness might be at increased risk for violence when experiencing psychotic episodes or between psychiatric hospitalizations, many of these studies have been heavily critiqued for overstating connections between serious mental illness and violence. On aggregate, there is not a strong connection between mental illness and gun violence.
Close to 18% (43.4 million) of adults in the U.S. have some form of mental illness, which is on par with other countries, yet Americans are ten times more likely to die from guns than other citizens in high-income countries. The American Psychiatric Association found that around 4% of violent crimes perpetrated in America are attributable to mental illness and only 1% of discharged psychiatric patients commit violence against strangers using a gun. Persons with mental illness are less likely than those without a mental illness to use a gun to commit a crime. The vast majority of people with severe mental illness, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and severe depression are no more likely than any other person to be violent. There is simply no clear causal link between mental illness and gun violence.
On the other hand, research shows that there are much stronger predictors of individual gun violence than mental illness, including: alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence, past or pending violent misdemeanor convictions or charges, and history of childhood abuse.
There are a number of problems with associating mass shootings with mental illness. First, it stigmatizes millions of people living with mental health conditions. Research shows that negative attitudes surrounding mental illness prevent people from seeking treatment. Linking mental illness with violence threatens to restrict the rights and freedoms we afford ordinary citizens. Second, the burden of identifying would-be shooters has now fallen on psychiatrists who are not necessarily equipped to identify violent gun criminals. A number of states now mandate psychiatrists assess their patients for their potential to commit a violent gun crime, but psychiatrists are not great predictors of gun violence, and some research shows they are no more able to predict gun violence than laypersons. Psychiatrists who fail to identify mass shooters may now be held liable for crimes they fail to predict. Third, linking gun violence to mental health therapies may not help to reduce gun violence. Few of the persons who are most at risk for committing a violent gun crime have been involuntarily hospitalized, and therefore would not be subject to existing legal restrictions on firearms. Finally, the focus on mental health obscures other reasons for our nation’s gun violence problem. By focusing almost exclusively on mental health, we fail to identify the myriad of other factors, including historical, cultural, legal, and economic conditions that contribute to gun violence in our country.
It is easy to blame mass shootings on the “abnormal brain”–it is far more difficult to uncover or come to terms with the systemic causes of gun violence that wreak havoc on our communities. There are good reasons to ensure all Americans have access to mental health services, but access to such care is unlikely to stem the tide of mass shootings in our country. Mental illness has become a convenient scapegoat for politicians on both sides of the aisle when it comes to mass shootings, but it is time we begin to look more closely at other culprits.
Devan Stahl, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the Center for Ethics and Humanities in the Life Sciences and the Department of Pediatrics and Human Development in the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine.
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More Bioethics in the News from Dr. Stahl: Disability and the Decisional Capacity to Vote