The Violence Myth

A new study published by the leading health policy journal Health Affairs says that the news media’s misrepresentation of the connection between mental illness and violence may undermine public support for mental health policies.

The study, “Trends In News Media Coverage Of Mental Illness In The United States: 1995–2014,” sampled 400 news stories about mental illness, and found that 55 percent of them mentioned violence. By contrast, only 14 percent described successful treatment for or recovery from mental illness.

The study provides some context to the media reporting on whether mental illness was a factor in the mass murder of 49 people at an Orlando gay night club on June 12 by a 29-year-old man, Omar Mateen. In the New York Times, security expert Peter Bergen writes that a New America study found that only one in ten terrorists—below the incidence in the general population—had mental health problems.


Here’s the full abstract of the study:

The United States is engaged in ongoing dialogue around mental illness. To assess trends in this national discourse, we studied the volume and content of a random sample of 400 news stories about mental illness from the period 1995–2014. Compared to news stories in the first decade of the study period, those in the second decade were more likely to mention mass shootings by people with mental illnesses. The most frequently mentioned topic across the study period was violence (55 percent overall) divided into categories of interpersonal violence or self-directed (suicide) violence, followed by stories about any type of treatment for mental illness (47 percent). Fewer news stories, only 14 percent, described successful treatment for or recovery from mental illness. The news media’s continued emphasis on interpersonal violence is highly disproportionate to actual rates of violence among those with mental illnesses. Research suggests that this focus may exacerbate social stigma and decrease support for public policies that benefit people with mental illnesses.

The Atlantic has a good review of the study here.

An extract:

…[A] consistent and dangerous narrative has emerged—an explanation all-too-readily at hand when a mass shooting or other violent tragedy occurs: The perpetrator must have been mentally ill.

“We have a strong responsibility as researchers who study mental illness to try to debunk that myth,” says Jeffrey Swanson, a professor of psychiatry at Duke University. “I say as loudly and as strongly and as frequently as I can, that mental illness is not a very big part of the problem of gun violence in the United States.”

The overwhelming majority of people with mental illnesses are not violent, just like the overwhelming majority of all people are not violent. Only 4 percent of the violence—not just gun violence, but any kind—in the United States is attributable to schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or depression (the three most-cited mental illnesses in conjunction with violence). In other words, 96 percent of the violence in America has nothing to do with mental illness.