El Paso, Dayton, and Mental Illness

Is mental illness behind the mass shootings that occur in America—251 in the past 216 days? President Trump and leading Republicans are blaming mental illness in the aftermath of the latest killings, in El Paso and Dayton. Professional psychologists say mental illness is not the problem, guns, racism, intolerance, and bigotry are. Blaming mental illness for violence dangerously reinforces the stigma around mental illness, making it less likely that those who need treatment will receive treatment.

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March for Our Lives protest, Los Angeles, March 24, 2016

“These are people that are very, very seriously mentally ill,” Trump said of the mass shootings. Texas Governor Greg Abbott, also a Republican, said in El Paso after the Walmart massacre there: “Mental health is a large contributor to any type of violence or shooting violence.”

Rosie Phillips Davis, president of the American Psychological Association, immediately pushed back against the blame in a statement on Sunday.

“Routinely blaming mass shootings on mental illness is unfounded and stigmatizing,” she said. “Research has shown that only a very small percentage of violent acts are committed by people who are diagnosed with, or in treatment for, mental illness. The rates of mental illness are roughly the same around the world, yet other countries are not experiencing these traumatic events as often as we face them. One critical factor is access to, and the lethality of, the weapons that are being used in these crimes. Adding racism, intolerance and bigotry to the mix is a recipe for disaster.”

More from the APA president’s statement:

“Our condolences are with the families and friends of those killed or injured in these horrific shootings and with all Americans affected every day by the twin horrors of hate and gun violence.

“As our nation tries to process the unthinkable yet again, it is clearer than ever that we are facing a public health crisis of gun violence fueled by racism, bigotry and hatred. The combination of easy access to assault weapons and hateful rhetoric is toxic. Psychological science has demonstrated that social contagion — the spread of thoughts, emotions and behaviors from person to person and among larger groups — is real, and may well be a factor, at least in the El Paso shooting.

“That shooting is being investigated as a hate crime, as it should be. Psychological science has demonstrated the damage that racism can inflict on its targets. Racism has been shown to have negative cognitive and behavioral effects on both children and adults and to increase anxiety, depression, self-defeating thoughts and avoidance behaviors.

“If we want to address the gun violence that is tearing our country apart, we must keep our focus on finding evidence-based solutions. This includes restricting access to guns for people who are at risk for violence and working with psychologists and other experts to find solutions to the intolerance that is infecting our nation and the public dialogue.”

Here are perspectives from a 2016 interview with Liza Gold, clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University and editor of Gun Violence and Mental Illness:

“Most serious mental illness is only weakly associated with violence of any kind—and with gun violence in particular. Most people with serious mental illness are not violent; most people who are violent do not have serious mental illness. Individuals with mental illness are responsible for about 3 percent to 5 percent of all types of violence in the U.S.—when they do become violent, they are most likely to assault family members or commit suicide.

“Firearm violence committed by individuals with serious mental illness against strangers is one of the rarest forms of gun violence in the US. Of the approximately 33,000 firearm deaths each year, two-thirds are suicides. Less than 1 percent of all firearm deaths in the US occur in the context of mass shootings by individuals, with or without mental illness. So unless the media and politicians are talking about suicide deaths by firearms—which they never are—they are simply perpetuating negative stereotypes and stigma associated with mental illness.

“The thinking goes like this: only someone who is crazy would commit such a horrible act and kill innocent people. We all know that crazy people are dangerous and violent; therefore, it must be people with mental illness who are behind these horrible acts. However, mass shootings are not invariably associated with people who have acute mental illness or a history of mental illness. Some do, but some don’t.

“Improved funding and resources for mental health systems and treatment would of course be welcomed. However, the repeated calls to “improve the mental health system” heard after mass shootings do not result in increased spending or funding. They merely serve as a politically expedient method to avoid talking about instituting sensible firearm regulation.”

Gold says the refrain to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill does a disservice to American society:

It reinforces the stigma and negative stereotypes associated with mental illness, making it less likely that those who need treatment will receive treatment.

It does not result in improved funding of or access to mental health treatment.

It allows politicians and media to avoid discussing sensible gun regulations.

Because no effective change results, the American people have come to believe that “nothing can be done” to stop the high toll of gun violence, despite the fact that we are the only country in the world with this kind of civilian gun violence problem.

The APA points to a variety of resources for people who are suffering distress in the aftermath of the shootings in El Paso and Dayton: