Mental illness is a topic that has been brought up following every mass shooting in recent history. Whether the result of a societal defense mechanism that tries to comprehend why anyone of sound mind would take the lives of the innocent, or because mass shooters are often labeled as mentally ill, a connection has been forged between mass shootings and mental illness. As the story breaks about Elliot Rodger and the Santa Barbara shooting, mental health has come once again to the fore of the conversation. Many studies have been conducted that examine the similarities across mass shooting incidents, as well as the archetype of the shooter. Regardless of the media-perpetuated stigma that all mentally ill persons are subject to violent behavior, risk assessment studies suggest that the best preventative measure for mass shootings is gun control.
In a study released this year that evaluated the characteristics of 37 high profile school shootings from 1987 onward, it was found that the majority of offenders struggled with the same kinds of personal problems. Social marginalization and issues at home or work were found in all cases. Feelings of chronic rejection were common and categorized as feelings of being “bullied, threatened, or injured.” Also, it is worth noting that a significant percentage of shooters felt that they had “failed in developing their manhood.” As per the YouTube video submitted by Elliot Rodger prior to the Santa Barbara shooting, feelings of masculine or sexual inadequacy were significant.
It should be noted that reputable studies avoid hyper-generalizations of mass shooter psychology. According to the professionals behind mental diagnoses, the reason for this is because the media does significant damage by creating a rhetoric that paints the mentally ill as highly prone to violence. While psychiatrists support “reasonable restrictions” on gun access for persons diagnosed with mental illness, they continue to stress the fact that it will have little affect on total gun-related violence. The reason: people suffering from depression, schizophrenia, and bi-polar disorder account for, at most, only five percent of violence.
One study that focused on risk assessment of mental illness and violence found that the stigma attached to such illnesses prevents those who require help from actually seeking it. The study pointed out that since 1983 there have been 78 mass shootings in the U.S., resulting in 547 deaths. The mental health of the shooters was the media’s prime focus in each case. Mental status aside, in the past decade alone, gun-related violence accounted for the deaths of over a quarter of a million people.
The media’s hypersensitivity to mental illness, gun-control, and mass shootings often overlooks the bulk of gun-related violence, but more importantly, it has painted a picture that all mentally ill persons are dangerous. To put it differently, the study underlined the fact that even if all the mentally ill were restricted from gun ownership, there still would have been a quarter of a million (minus 547) gun-related deaths in the past decade.
The aforementioned studies all stressed the importance of treatment of mental illness, not because it is crucial for avoiding mass shootings, but because it is justifiable by standards of mental health. The media’s reporting on mass shootings has instigated a witch-hunt like craze that propagates the generalization that all people with mental illness are dormant mass shooters. In terms of risk assessment, the studies advised a combination of gun control and increased accessibility to treatment. Most importantly, the studies bring up the distinction between what the public ought to fear, widespread gun violence, versus the easy target of that fear, the mentally ill.
Opinion by Courtney Anderson