Community Issues

The Tenuous Link Between Mental Health and Mass Shootings

Experts say mental illness does not play a role in the majority of mass shootings, and we risk stigmatizing those who have been diagnosed.


In the search for answers after mass shootings, especially when the motive is not known, people often turn to mental illness to explain the shooter's actions. Often it seems that is the only way we can explain what drove somebody to murder innocent people at a school, shopping mall, food festival or nightclub.

But mental health experts say that the link between mental illness and acts of violence is not as clear cut. An oft-cited statistic is that people diagnosed with a mental illness are far more likely to be the victim of a violent crime than the perpetrator.

The New York Times cites research from Dr. Michael Stone, a forensic psychiatrist at Columbia University who studies and documents mass murderers. According to Dr. Stone, one in five mass murderers shows evidence of psychosis, but the other 80 percent have many of the problems that nearly everyone has to manage at some point in life: anger, isolation, depressive moods, resentments, jealousy.

Based on these statistics, it is important for people to speak carefully about mental illness in the aftermath of a mass shooting, as to not further stigmatize people who are living with a mental condition. Those individuals may be less likely to seek treatment if they feel they will be labeled as "crazy" or "insane," or thought of as dangerous. And those who do not seek treatment are more likely to harm themselves than others.

Just one in five mass shooters show signs of mental illness. Perpetrators are far more likely to grapple with normal mood swings outside radicalization.

"In almost all high-end mass killings, the perpetrator's thinking evolves," Kevin Cameron, executive director of the Canadian Center for Threat Assessment and Trauma Response, told the New York Times. He says potential killers do not need to be diagnosed with a mental illness to have an irrational thought that warps over time into a horrific plan.

"They have a passing thought. They think about it more, they fantasize, they slowly build a justification. They prepare, and then when the right set of circumstances comes along, it unleashes the rage."

This underscores the importance of early intervention. School districts have begun implementing "red flag" policies, where students who display signs of potentially dangerous behavior (including interaction with online propaganda or radical material, as well as sharing hateful views with friends or on social media) can be diverted to therapy and other programs--without forced drugging or confinement. Los Angeles County, the largest school district in the country, implemented a similar program in 2007 and has not had a major school shooting in that time.

If you're looking for mental health services, you can click here to learn more about resources available to you and your loved ones. You can also click here to learn more about the warning signs of mental illness .

You can also call the National Alliance on Mental Illness Hotline at 800.950.NAMI or text NAMI to 741741. If you are in immediate danger call 911 .

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