Perspectives

Gun Violence and Mental Illness

By Dennis Grimski

I have worked in healthcare for over 40 years and, in specific, behavioral healthcare.  I have worked as both a direct service Clinician; then later in my career as an Executive Officer that funded services for persons with mental illness, substance abuse and developmental disabilities.  With the recent tragic gun shooting in Florida, a lot of misinformation has been floating on the news, internet and social media that has led me to write this article.

Let me first say, I am truly sorry for the families and friends that lost loved ones in Florida. This was in fact a tragedy, and as facts have unfolded, it may have been a tragedy that may have been preventable.    

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As we all know, a heavily armed young man is accused of killing seventeen people after opening fire on terrified students and teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., this past month.  This event has raised a firestorm of opinions and questions.  Some people see access to guns  of any type, but especially assault weapons, as the key issue; others see this shooting as a systemic failure of government and a deterioration of society that led to this and other mass shootings; while still others are raising the question, “Are persons with mental illness violent?”  

This article attempts to explore facts and falsehoods around this last issue: “Are persons with mental illness violent?”   Why, because many people seem to honestly believe that persons with mental illness underlie most of these tragedies … a belief that is far from the truth or facts.   But first let’s define mental illness.

Yet, misperceptions abound about persons with mental illness and violence. For example, House Speaker Paul Ryan’s claim (see below) reflects a common misperception across America.  According to recent polls, roughly half of Americans either believe that failing to identify people with mental health problems is the primary cause of gun violence, or better addressing mental health issues would be a major deterrent to gun violence.  

House Speaker, Paul Ryan

“Mental health is often a big problem underlying these problems.” House Speaker, Paul Ryan

This conclusion, however, is not shared by experts or widely accepted research.  In an analysis of 235 mass killings, many of which were carried out with firearms, only 12% of the perpetrators could be considered mentally ill.

Overall, mass shootings by people with serious mental illness represent only two percent of all gun homicides each year, according to the book “Gun Violence and Mental Illness published by the American Psychiatric Association in 2016.

Some further research:

  • A 2016 academic study estimated that just 4 percent of violence is associated with serious mental illness alone. “Evidence is clear that the large majority of people with mental disorders do not engage in violence against others, and that most violent behavior is due to factors other than mental illness,” the study concluded.  

      (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4211925)

A 2015 study found that less than 5 percent of gun-related killings in the United States between 2001 and 2010 were committed by people diagnosed with mental illness.    (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4318286/)

As John T. Monahan, a professor specializing in psychology and law at the University of Virginia, stated:

“Two things typically happen in the wake of a mass shooting. First, politicians claim that mental illness is the major cause of violence in America. Then, advocates for people with mental illness respond by denying there is any relationship whatsoever between mental illness and violence. Both groups are wrong. Research shows that the association between mental illness and violence is not strong, but it does sometimes exist.”

So what is the truth?  What is reality?  In short, no mental health myth causes more harm than the “nonsense” that people living with mental illness are violent.  Here are some additional facts:

PEOPLE LIVING WITH MENTAL ILLNESS ARE NO MORE VIOLENT THAN OTHER PEOPLE.

Maybe the most harmful baseless myth about mental illness is that it makes you violent. Movies, TV, video games and even the news often tell us a false, highly stigmatising story that people experiencing mental illness are violent. It’s not true. Research consistently shows there is no evidence that people living with mental illness are generally more violent than anyone else.

In fact, people living with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence than other people.  Rates of violence against people with mental illness are much higher than for the general population, especially those with serious mental illnesses. People with serious mental illness are also more at risk of homicide, suicide and self-harm. In short, ‘Psychotic’ does not mean ‘violent.’

Violence is not a symptom of psychotic illnesses like schizophrenia. The causal link between psychosis and violence is inconclusive.  There is a slightly higher likelihood of violent behaviour among people with psychotic illness, but analysis of many studies suggests that this may be more the result of abusing drugs or alcohol, not receiving proper treatment or having a history of violent behavior which is independent of the illness.

More accurate predictors of violence

Among the strongest risk factors for aggressive behaviour are:

  • being male
  • being a young adult
  • having had a troubled childhood
  • having problems with drug and especially alcohol abuse.
  • involvement with juvenile delinquency or adult jail incarceration.
  • isolation (psychological, mental and/or social)

Among the strongest risk factors for terrorist mass shooting are:

  • being male
  • being a young adult under 30
  • subscribing to an uncompromising ideology which seeks to use violence to achieve its goals
  • isolation (psychological, mental and/or social)

When it comes to the risk factors for aggressive behavior, including mass shootings, this doesn’t mean that people like those noted above, are all violent, or that other people can’t be violent. But crime statistics show that these factors have a much stronger influence than mental illness over a person’s likelihood to act violently.  Coincidentally, the shooter in  Florida met many of these aggressive behavior criteria, not solely due to his mental illness.  It wasn’t by circumstance that many people reported incidents over 30 times to the police, and at least 2 times to the FBI regarding this troubled youth.  The problem in Florida was not that he may have had a mental illness, but that the government systems failed this youth, his school and the community in  responding to reported needs and incidents.

So what’s the bottom line?

Research and data clearly show that persons with mental illness are not any more violent than other persons in society.  Yet, Hollywood, TV shows and video games widely distort the public’s perception of persons with mental illness, thus creating a false reality.  For the vast majority of persons with mental illness, 98% are not violent, let alone prone to mass shootings.  For those who may be prone to violence, other key behaviors should be key tips for their family, friends and the community, other than the person’s mental illness (e.g. making statements to others that he is planning to shoot someone).  

In closing, if you take anything away from this article, please know that you don’t have to live in fear of persons who are living with mental illness.  Also, please be aware that the mental health system is dramatically underfunded, and increased funding will help meet many needs, but reducing gun violence is not one of them.  In fact, most persons with mental illness are positive, productive and contributing members of our society.   

References

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Dennis is a 40+ year resident of the Blue Water area. He is a retired Executive Officer for two regional healthcare organizations; and was the CEO for his own successful Management Consulting firm. He received his Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and History from Western Michigan University; a Masters Degree in Professional Counseling from WMU; and a Specialist Degree in Psychology/Behavior Modification from U of M. Dennis is a Christ-follower, husband, father, grandfather, and loves golf, board games, and discussing politics and religion. He is a leader in Bible Study Fellowship (BSF); disciples several men; and has been an Elder, children’s bible teacher, Sunday school teacher, Life Group leader, and Men’s ministry leader in his church.

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Disclaimer: Blue Water Healthy Living is an online magazine located in Port Huron, Michigan. Our purpose is to promote healthy living by showcasing the Blue Water Area, its people, issues and surroundings. This online magazine is devoted to providing healthy living related stories, local happenings, and commentary. Often inspiring and uplifting, our stories come from our heart and soul to promote the enjoyment of a more fulfilling Blue Water Area lifestyle. The material on this web site is provided for informational and amusement purposes only and is not to be confused with any medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. The views and opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the opinions and values of Blue Water Healthy Living.

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