Editorial: Are Those with Mental Illness Prone to Violence?

It deeply hurts. Time and time after time again, politicians, newscasters and everyday people associate violence with mental illness. This is both degrading and harmful. It perpetuates the stigmatic myth that those with mental illnesses are to be feared. For those like me, who have moved to manage mental illness to the point where it has virtually no impairment, it makes us think, will those who know me see me as potentially violent? For those who may be in the weeds of working to manage mental illness, they might think, am I in fact violent? Can I be trusted? 

While this problematic association applies to any version of mental illness, the issue is compounded by the fact that the distinction between any mental illness (AMI) and severe mental illness (SMI) is disregarded in this context. 

Per the National Institute of Mental Health, AMI is defined as a mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder. AMI can vary in impact, ranging from no impairment to mild, moderate, or severe impairment. SMI is defined as a mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder resulting in serious functional impairment, which substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities. Examples of this are schizophrenia and extreme bipolar disorder. Simply put, it is misleading and irresponsible to lump all degrees of mental illnesses together. 

Allow Me To Illustrate

Following this past August’s mass shootings in Dayton and El Paso, the President of the United States held a press briefing in which he classified “mentally ill monsters” as a source of violence. As part three of a four point proposal to curb gun violence, he declared, “We must reform our mental health laws to better identify mentally disturbed individuals who may commit acts of violence and make sure those people not only get treatment but, when necessary, involuntary confinement. Mental illness and hatred pull the trigger, not the gun.”

More recently, the prominent Jewish newspaper The Forward took their turn at the association. In trying to delve into the rise of anti-Semitic attacks in New York City, they published an article titled: “Are high rates of mental illness connected to a spike in anti-Semitic violence?”

If only this sentiment was unique or new. The President and The Forward were in many ways regurgitating age-old callous and unwarranted fear towards those with mental illness. 

The Deadliest Attack Provided The Most Egregious Characterizations 

As a case study, I examined the Las Vegas mass shooting of October 2017 – the deadliest in modern U.S. history.

In the wake of the shooting, media outlets hurriedly tried to fill in the motive. Even when the identity of the perpetrator was barely known, prominent news agencies began floating mental health speculation. ABC’s special coverage cited the possibility of a “mental health issue.” Similar theories were spitballed by CBS News and MSNBC’s popular program “Morning Joe”.

In the days that followed, prominent news outlets were whipped into a frenzy about the mental illness narrative. These theories were often based on unnamed sources or raw speculation. CNN went as far as to publish a full-blown opinion piece “The Mystery of The Shooter’s Brain”. (I have edited out the shooter’s name from the title.) The article addressed burning questions like “Could he have been a psychopath?” In total, it included some variation of the words “psycho” or “mental” fifteen times. Fox Business, for their part, ran an entire segment devoted to rumors that the shooter was prescribed anxiety medication several months before the attack. They assessed “how insane” this person must have been and analyzed what type of “psychiatric problems” he clearly had. 

A headline from ABC News six days after the Vegas shooting

Putting Fact To Fiction

The CEO of the American Psychological Association, Arthur C. Evans, puts it best: “Blaming mental illness for the gun violence in our country is simplistic and inaccurate and goes against the scientific evidence currently available… As we psychological scientists have said repeatedly, the overwhelming majority of people with mental illness are not violent. And there is no single personality profile that can reliably predict who will resort to gun violence.”

Here are the facts Evans is likely referring to. While 1 in 5 U.S. adults experience AMI in a given year, only 1 in 25 experience SMI. In fact, people who have SMI are far more likely to be a victim of violent crime than the perpetrator. One study found that those with SMI are 11 times more likely to be victims of violent crime than the general population.

Sticking with facts, there is indeed evidence suggesting those with SMI are at a higher risk of committing violent acts than the general population. However, in order to effectively address this possibility, the solution would be to improve access to treatment, not creating an atmosphere that stigmatizes and thus discourages people from seeking treatment. After all, a common reason for developing SMI is allowing mild or moderate mental illness to go untreated or unidentified. Creating new gun laws based on mental illness would have the effect of further stigmatization and increasing the chances of people being unwilling to seek treatment when they need it. 

A starting place may be updating the highly offensive wording currently in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System reporting law, which makes it unlawful for those “adjudicated as being mentally defective” to possess a firearm.

OK, But Was The Vegas Shooting Narrative Correct?

After about two years of intensive investigation, the FBI concluded there was “no single or clear motivating factor” behind the shooting. I could not blame the typical observer for having the impression to this day that mental illness was determined to be the motive. Unfortunately, the media and politicians were far more interested in the gunman’s brother’s speculation that he may have been suffering from paranoid delusions than they were in the fact that the shooter had a gambling problem and was on a losing streak or that his father was a bank robber – once on the FBI’s most wanted list. (The brother had previously been arrested on unrelated but serious charges.) Simply put, the situation was far too murky to rationally assign a motive.

The Only Solution is Together

The characterization many push that mental illness leads to violence is not just often inaccurate, it is morally disgusting and tangibly harmful. It encourages a belief that there is somehow something wrong with having a mental illness and thus discourages treatment. Who wants to be that person who is known as a threat? Furthermore, someone who has a mental illness but has not yet realized that they do will be confused by the fact that they are not a violent person but are told mental illness means violence.

The next time you hear a newscaster float the mental illness motive (not even bothering to at least differentiate between AMI and SMI), roll your eyes along with me. Do not stand for our politicians demonizing and scapegoating those with mental illness. We all deserve a society where each person is treated with fairness and respect.

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3 Comments on “Editorial: Are Those with Mental Illness Prone to Violence?

  1. Definitely a major fear of mine. The ACS gets on top of innocent people at times. What happens if an innocent parent happens to have a mental illness? Would that spell thier doom? Even if they are completely innocent.

  2. Thank you Eitan, for writing this. The question and fear has haunted me. It’s upsetting when these articles come out to wonder, do I have it in me to be violent like that because I have a mental illness? I like to think that on the contrary, because I have a mental illness, I am more aware, and have learned and posess many more coping skills than the average person to regulate their emotions.

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