Mental Illness and Mass Shootings: Facts on the Myth

If you’ve turned on the television, checked your phone, or gone onto social media in the last 48 hours you’ve probably seen the latest headline. A man in Sutherland Springs, Texas opened fire in a crowded church fatally wounding 26 individuals in the process. While this tight knit community mourns their loss the country has a large question that it wants answered; is there a connection between mental illness and mass shootings in America? Many comments are to the effect of “only a sick person can do this” or “regardless of a diagnosis he had to be mentally ill.” With those comments the correlation/causation argument is opened and we must evaluate the statistics surrounding mass shootings. That being said, Psych2Go would like to discuss the facts of mental illness and mass shootings in America.

Fact #1: The Statistics Do Not Support the Accusations

There is speculation that the Texas shooter was mentally ill. These assumptions are being voiced by everyone from private citizens to those in office and even individuals around the world. But, is it accurate? Is there data that shows those with mental illness are connected, exponentially, to the crime of mass shootings? The long and short answer to this is no. There is no substantial evidence that those with mental illness are more likely to commit crimes such as this. In fact, there has been evidence found to the contrary. The National Center for Biotechnological Information, or NCBI, puts the data at roughly 4%. This statistic actually speaks to all violent crimes as a whole, not just mass shootings.

So to recap this very first fact, there have been multiple studies and data finding expeditions conducted. The consensus is that 96% of all violent crimes in America are committed by those that DO NOT have a mental illness.

Fact #2: Blaming Mass Shootings on Those with Mental Illness Does Nothing 

Based on the above statistic one might discern that bringing up mental illness within the same sentence as mass shootings serves no purpose at all. The only thing that this truly accomplishes is the continued stigma within the world of mental illness. It paints those with mental illness as violent individuals who should be feared or even institutionalized. The term “mental illness,” when used in this sense, is far too vague. It leaves things open ended and allows for people to read between the lines. Even if we focused on the 4% we are still ignoring the other 96% and again, this is for all violent crime. Those that are mentally ill and commit mass shooting are an even smaller percentage.

Fact #3: Those with Mental Illnesses Are More Likely to be the Victim, not the Perpetrator

Those with schizophrenia or other serious mental illnesses are often characterized by being socially withdrawn. This is not the same as being a societal outcast or a “loner” though. Both of those denote a push back from society, not a conscious decision from the person themselves. In fact, it has been found that those with a serious mental illness are 65 to 130 percent more likely to be the victim of a violent crime. The perpetrator, statistically speaking, will be someone without a mental illness diagnosis and it may even be chalked up to “an isolated incident.” Isolated imparts the notion that these types of events happen on a rare basis which, as we just found out, is not the case at all.

Fact #4: Mental Illness is Being Used as a Scapegoat, Constantly

As witnessed in the first paragraph of this article, it is believed that there must be something wrong with a mass shooter. We are often times facing comments that speak to the “sickness” of the perpetrator as a way to explain their actions. This may come from the human need to try to understand these things. Most of us could not imagine walking into a mall, a school, or a church and just opening fire on those there. Since we can’t imagine it, we then decide that those who do have to be very unlike ourselves. We want there to be some deciding factor as to how another human being could create so much carnage.

There may be a simple explanation for this need to find something “wrong” with the shooter. We are uncomfortable with the fact that the shooter can look or seem “normal” and just like us. We want there to be a difference so badly that we leap on race or religion as that big difference. What happens when the shooter looks and acts just like us though? This is where the argument of mental illness comes from.

Fact #5: There are a List of Predictive Factors, Metal Illness isn’t one of them

There are things known as predictive factors when it comes to mass shootings and violent crimes. Things such as an abusive childhood and alcohol abuse are on the top of this list of predictive factors. Another factor spoken about is the access to a weapon during emotional charged situations. There are others as well but mental illness is not one of them, purely because the statistics do not support its addition to the list.

It is completely normal to want to find a reason behind mass shooting and similar events. We want to understand how people can have such disregard for human life. We can see that sometimes it’s a domestic abuse situation while others deal with a disgruntled employee. In some cases, the perpetrator feels that they have been wronged in some way. While in others it was a long festering issue that eventually came to a very tragic end. At the end of the day, no matter what information we want, we may have to accept the fact that there isn’t a clear cut reason. To that affect, we can’t just slap unsubstantiated claims onto things just because we are desperate for answers.


Other reading from Psych2Go:

5 Harmful Myths About Mental Illness 


Kozart , Michael. “Sonoma Medicine.” North Bay County Medical Societies , Sonoma Medicine , 2016, Retrieved November 6, 2017

Metzl, Jonathan M., and Kenneth T. MacLeish. “Mental Illness, Mass Shootings, and the Politics of American Firearms.” American Journal of Public Health, American Public Health Association, Feb. 2015, Retrieved November 6, 2017

Rai, Tage. “The Myth That Mental Illness Causes Mass Shootings.” Behavioral Scientist, Behavioral Scientist, 16 Oct. 2017, Retrieved November 6, 2017

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