Everyone blames mental illness for mass shootings. But what if that’s wrong?
October 07, 2015
It seems like there’s one thing everyone agrees on after a mass shooting: The shooter must have been mentally ill. President Barack Obama said as much in his reaction to the Umpqua Community College shooting on Thursday: ”We don’t yet know why this individual did what he did, and it’s fair to say that anybody who does this has a sickness in their minds, regardless of what they think their motivations may be.”
But what if the assumption is wrong, or at least misses the nuance of the issue?
Jonathan Metzl, a professor of psychiatry, sociology, and medicine, health, and society at Vanderbilt University, argues that mental illness is often a scapegoat that lets policymakers and the public ignore bigger, more complicated contributors to gun violence. Metzl, who reviewed the research on mass shootings and mental illness in a paper for the American Journal of Public Health, points to studies that show people with mental illness are more likely to be victims — not perpetrators — of violence, and that very few violent acts — about 3 to 5 percent — are carried out by the mentally ill. And while mental illness can be a contributor to some violent behaviors, other factors — such as substance abuse, poverty, history of violence, and access to guns — are much stronger predictors of violence and shootings.