This post is a part of our Bioethics in the News series
By Robyn Bluhm, PhD
Over the past month, mass shootings have occurred in Gilroy, CA, in Chicago, in El Paso, and in Dayton. Most recently, the FBI has arrested a man in Las Vegas who had been planning a shooting spree. It’s common, after such a shooting occurs, to speculate about the mental health of the shooter. In a way, this is understandable: we cannot help but feel that anyone who could do such a thing is not mentally well. We can’t imagine what it would be like to be someone who is capable of meticulously planning and carrying out a mass killing like the one in Charleston, or Parkland, or Sandy Hook, or Pittsburgh, or Las Vegas, or so very many other places in the United States.
It’s true that some of the people who have become mass shooters have been diagnosed with a serious mental illness. But there are many reasons to reject the narrative of the mentally ill mass shooter. For one thing, it does not really fit the facts: the relationship between mental illness and mass shootings is murky at best. For another, it does a grave disservice to people who have a mental illness. As Devan Stahl has shown, associating mass shooting with mental illness stigmatizes people living with mental health conditions, who already face significant stigma.
Mental illness stigma is a complex phenomenon reflecting multiple beliefs. Research has shown that people tend to view those with mental illness as dangerous and unpredictable. Biological explanations of mental illness, in particular, can lead people to think that those with mental illness are fundamentally different from those who do not have such a diagnosis. Again, these beliefs are not supported by data. But they do provide people with the comforting sense that there is an explanation for mass shootings. Notably, it’s an “internal” explanation that focuses on the shooter himself, rather than on broader social and policy issues relevant to the phenomenon. And for some, that fact, too, is comforting.
How philosophy can help us think about mass shootings and mental illness
But, I think, there is another way of thinking about the link between mental illnesses and mass shootings that may actually be helpful. Rather than focusing on whether individual mass shooters (or the majority of mass shooters) are mentally ill, we can think about the similarity between mass shootings and (some) kinds of mental illness. The philosopher Ian Hacking has written about the phenomena of transient mental illness, by which he means: “an illness that appears at a time, in a place, and later fades away. It may spread from place to place and reappear from time to time. It may be selective for social class or gender, preferring poor women or rich men. I do not mean that it comes and goes in this or that patient, but that this type of madness exists only at certain times and places.”
Two aspects of his analysis may be useful here. First, he draws an analogy between these conditions and the concept of an ecological niche, which provides a place in which a species can thrive, whereas other places do not allow it to live at all.
Second, he emphasizes that categories of human beings are different from other categories: a tiger, for example, does not care whether we classify her as a tiger, whereas human beings often care deeply about how we are categorized. Because of this, categories of human beings are prone to what Hacking calls “looping effects.” He means that people and the categories into which they put them interact with and change each other. Once a category is “out there” in the world, people may come to identify with it and behave accordingly. During the 1980s, for example, mental health professionals began to see increasing numbers of people with multiple personality disorder, in part as a result of numerous books, televisions shows, and media stories that described this phenomenon. But groups of people also behave in ways that change the characteristics associated with a category. Over time, people who were diagnosed with multiple personality disorder began to exhibit more, and more differentiated, personalities.
Hacking’s analysis is useful even if we don’t think that “being a mass shooter” is a form of mental illness. (It’s also worth noting that even those who think that mass shootings are caused by mental illness don’t think that “being a mass shooter” is a kind of mental illness.) In fact, multiple personality disorder is not recognized as an illness by mental health professionals. Instead, what matters is that it was a recognizable way to behave, or, in Hacking’s words, to be a person – and also that it came into being in a particular kind of social context that, somehow, fostered this way of being a person.
Thinking about mass shootings in Hacking’s terms may help us to understand them. For one thing, mass shooters occupy a very specific niche: they exist almost uniquely in the United States during the past few decades. Appeals to mental illness as a cause can’t explain this fact. Moreover, mass shootings tend to follow a pattern – now that the category exists, members of the group tend to behave according to its rules. But (and this is the other half of the looping effect), we should also be alert to ways that the rules of the category may be changing over time. Recent mass shootings, for example, have been linked to white supremacy. It also seems to be becoming more common for mass shooters to leave a manifesto.
Perhaps most importantly, Hacking gives us a way to think about preventing mass shootings. Blaming mass shootings on mental illness implies that we can do nothing about them, especially if we view people who have a mental illness as essentially different from those who don’t have one. If men who become mass shooters do so in a very particular niche, then the way forward is to destroy the niche which lets them thrive.
Robyn Bluhm, PhD, is an Associate Professor with a joint appointment in the Department of Philosophy and Lyman Briggs College. She is a co-editor of The Bloomsbury Companion to Philosophy of Psychiatry.
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More Bioethics in the News from Dr. Bluhm: “Ask your doctor” – or just check Instagram?; Antibiotics: No Clear Course; To Floss or Not to Floss? That’s not the question