The Surprising Link Between Mental Illness and Violence

Last Sunday night, October 1, 2017, the deadliest mass shooting in US history took place in Las Vegas, Nevada. Tragically, 59 people were killed and 527 injured when Stephen Paddock open fired on a crowd of 22,000 attending an outdoor concert.

Sadly, this was just the latest in what seems like a never-ending string of mass shootings in the US. According to data from the Gun Violence Archive, a total of 273 mass shooting incidents have occurred so far this year, as of October 2. You can see statistics for other years here.  According to one New York Times article, shootings leaving four or more people wounded or dead occur in the United States at a rate of one a day on average.

That’s too much scary in an already scary world.

With so much tragedy around, we desperately look for answers to make some kind of sense of it all. Your brain is wired to look for patterns in danger in an effort to keep you safe in the future. If our brains can pinpoint a commonality, they can begin to restore a feeling of security and sense of control

The common assumption is that people who commit mass murder are mentally ill. They have to be. Right?

No.

Most mass shootings are not committed by mentally ill people.

Mentally Ill Doesn’t Mean Violent

A mass shooting is obviously the act of a distorted thought process. However, the connection between mental illness and mass shootings is weak because while mentally ill people can sometimes be a danger to themselves or others, evidence shows that very little violence is actually caused by mentally ill people.

According to the article, Why Better Mental Health-Care Won’t Stop Mass Shootings:

One review paper published in 2014 found that though ‘a history of childhood abuse, binge drinking, and male gender’ are all linked to serious violence, mental illness was not, unless the person was also a drug addict. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, fewer than 5 percent of the 120,000 gun-related killings in the United States between 2001 and 2010 were perpetrated by people diagnosed with a mental illness. A 2001 study of teen mass murders found that only one out of four was mentally ill.

In fact, research shows that only three to five percent of all violent acts are committed by a person with a mental illness.  Michael Stone, a forensic psychiatrist at the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons and author of The Anatomy of Evil, found that about two out of ten mass killers were suffering from serious mental illness. The rest had personality or antisocial disorders or were disgruntled, jilted, humiliated or full of intense rage.

The Mentally Ill Are More Likely to be the Victims of Violence

In reality, people with mental illness are a vulnerable population. In fact, people with severe mental illnesses are over ten times more likely to be victims of violent crime than the general population. A meta-analysis found that one in four people with mental illness experiences violence of some type in any given year — a much higher rate than the rest of the population. People with mental illness are also almost five times as likely to be a victim of murder as a person without a psychiatric diagnosis.

According to the article, Mental Illness and Vulnerability:

The risk was highest among those with substance use disorders — nine times that of the general population. Those with personality disorders had three times the risk, people with depression two and a half times, and those with anxiety or schizophrenia about twice the risk of being murdered, compared with people without mental illness.”

Contrary to what is portrayed in the media, mentally ill people are most often the victims of violence. They aren’t the ones doing the victimizing. The article, NEW STUDY: Mentally Ill Are Often Targets of Violence, put it this way:

It is a sad commentary on the nature of public interest that the estimated 1% of individuals with untreated severe mental illness who commit acts of violence grabs so many headlines while the 25% of those who fall victim to violence generate so few. It is equally difficult to fathom how critics can find involuntary treatment more unacceptable for those in need of treatment than the high chance they’ll become victims of violence.”

What Exactly Is Mental Illness?

It’s easy to understand why mental illness is a convenient explanation for mass shootings or violence, in general. Understandably, violent events make us scared and anxious. Like I said earlier, your brain wants to find a pattern to allow it to feel safe. If mental illness is responsible, then it can focus on “those” people.

But, there is no us and them.  It’s all us.  It’s your neighbor, your friend, your sibling, or you.

The American Psychological Association defines mental illness as:

…health conditions involving changes in thinking, emotion or behavior (or a combination of these). Mental illnesses are associated with distress and/or problems functioning in social, work or family activities.”

Mental illness is common. In a given year:

  • nearly one in five (19 percent) U.S. adults experience some form of mental illness
  • one in 24 (4.1 percent) has a serious mental illness
  • one in 12 (8.5 percent) has a substance use disorder

The vast majority of individuals with mental illness continue to function in their daily lives. You probably know someone with a mental health challenge and don’t even realize it. Many people with mental health issues are highly active and productive members of our communities.

Hatred Is Not a Mental Illness

Hatred is not a mental illness. Terrorism is not a mental illness. Prejudice, bigotry, and anger are not mental illnesses. Blaming violence on mental illness is just plain wrong and only serves to perpetuate the already pervasive stigma around mental health issues.

While awareness and acceptance of mental health issues are improving, many are still largely uncomfortable talking about, openly admitting, and seeking treatment for mental illness. Some people still question the legitimacy of mental illness as being “real.” We have medical tests that can verify cancers, heart disease, and other ailments. We have X-rays that can see broken bones and tumors.

However, this type of definitive medical test is not typically available yet with a mental illness. A mental illness diagnosis is most often a professional opinion based on presenting symptoms, physical and mental, a physical exam, lab tests, and a psychological evaluation. Because of this, mental illness continues to be plagued by shame and stigma. This only makes it harder for people to feel understood and to seek treatment — which can make symptoms even worse.

The Las Vegas tragedy and similar incidents present opportunities for us to start important conversations. Ideally, these discussions would encourage education and understanding of mental health issues, not perpetuate the stigma of mental illness.

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4 Comments

  1. Very eye opening. I never assumed a connection between mental illness and violence, but this provides the backup date. Thank you, Debbie.

  2. Debbie, I am glad that you highlighted important things to be aware of here. That hatred is not mental illness, that mental illness may not necessarily be the explanation for mass shootings and that patients are more likely the victims. Thank you!

  3. Thank you, Debbie, for this insightful post. The stigma around mental illness does hold some from getting help. I appreciate your insights about how there are many with mental illness who are functioning in our communities in very productive ways. Our current situation in this country with the continual mass shootings is causing stress and anxiety for the general population, so my hope is that there is something that we can put into place to change this destructive course that we seem to be on.

  4. Like Sandra…I never assumed the connection between mental illness and violence. I’ve always connected it to someone in terrible mental pain of some kind. Your article is indeed an eye opener Debbie and I appreciate you bringing these statistics to the attention of many like myself who would otherwise have been unaware.

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