How we talk about mass shootings and mental illness has consequences


We're walking an extremely fine line when it comes to how we talk about mass shootings and mental illness; and the consequences could undo all the hard work put into destigmatizing those struggling and seeking help. By falling for the heavy and easy narrative of labeling mass shooters as mentally ill and unstable, we risk and most likely deter those struggling with mental health from seeking help. By defaulting to an easy target, we've just lumped them categorically with someone who gunned down innocent children.

As Laura L. Hayes writes in Slate:

The attribution of violent crime to people diagnosed with mental illness is increasing stigmatization of the mentally ill while virtually no effort is being made to address the much broader cultural problem of anger management. This broader problem encompasses not just mass murders but violence toward children and spouses, rape, road rage, assault, and violent robberies. We are a culture awash in anger.

We want folks struggling with mental health to get help don't we? So why then are we falling into the easy trap of finding a scapegoat?

Mass shootings by people with serious mental illness represent less than 1% of all yearly gun-related homicides.

Following the Texas church shooting in November of 2017, American Psychological Association President Antonio Puente, PhD, stated:

“Gun violence is a serious public health problem that requires attention to these risk factors, as well as more research to inform the development and implementation of empirically based prevention and threat assessment strategies. Calling this shooting a ‘mental health problem’ distracts our nation’s leaders from developing policies and legislation that would focus on preventing gun violence through a scientific, public health approach.”

In a 2016 American Psychiatric Association study, the researchers laid out some misconceptions:

  • People with serious mental illness should be considered dangerous.
  • Gun laws focusing on people with mental illness or with a psychiatric diagnosis can effectively prevent mass shootings.
  • Gun laws focusing on people with mental illness or a psychiatric diagnosis are reasonable, even if they add to the stigma already associated with mental illness.

They then listed evidence-based facts:

  • Mass shootings by people with serious mental illness represent less than 1% of all yearly gun-related homicides. In contrast, deaths by suicide using firearms account for the majority of yearly gun-related deaths.
  • The overall contribution of people with serious mental illness to violent crimes is only about 3%. When these crimes are examined in detail, an even smaller percentage of them are found to involve firearms.
  • Laws intended to reduce gun violence that focus on a population representing less than 3% of all gun violence will be extremely low yield, ineffective, and wasteful of scarce resources. Perpetrators of mass shootings are unlikely to have a history of involuntary psychiatric hospitalization. Thus, databases intended to restrict access to guns and established by guns laws that broadly target people with mental illness will not capture this group of individuals.
  • Gun restriction laws focusing on people with mental illness perpetuate the myth that mental illness leads to violence, as well as the misperception that gun violence and mental illness are strongly linked. Stigma represents a major barrier to access and treatment of mental illness, which in turn increases the public health burden.

Most mass shooters are males.

In fact, what is a consistent factor in ALL of the mass shootings is that all of the shooters were MALE and only two of the shootings since 1982 involved females and only one of them was a lone women shooter. Drilling down more, most of the mass shooters were white men.

So this tells us something about males in American society... there are some major underlying concerns touching upon masculinity and what we teach our kids when it comes to "being a man". It should scare us that gun manufacturers are marketing to our men and boys that part of being a man means owning and shooting a gun.

There's another study done by researchers at Baylor University which finds that:

American gun owners vary greatly in their sense of empowerment from guns; most dramatically, white respondents who have undergone or fear economic distress tend to derive self-esteem and moral rectitude from their weapons. For this distinct group of gun owners, gun empowerment delivers a sense of meaning to life that neither economic status nor religious devotion currently provide. These owners’ attachment to guns draws directly from popular narratives concerning American masculinity, freedom, heroism, power, and independence. In turn, owners who feel more emotionally and morally empowered by their guns are more likely to think that guns can solve social problems and make communities safer, and that citizens are sometimes justified in taking violent action against the government.

We found that economic distress enhances the extent to which white men, specifically, come to rely on the semiotic power of a cultural symbol. As Swidler (1986:278) hypothesizes, “doctrine, symbol, and ritual directly shape action” in “unsettled” time periods. During times of distress, cultural tools become more than post-hoc rationalizations of individual preferences and become guiding ideologies. This appears to be the case for white male gun owners who, when facing unsettling economic times, utilize guns as a foundational source of power and identity.

I actually like the way Maine author Stephen King put it:

Image may contain: 1 person, eyeglasses, text and closeup

So less to do with mental illness and more to do with how we define masculinity and how we teach our boys and men to express emotions using spoken words, writing, art, pictures; anything other than violence.

But that requires a deep and consistent societal change. In the meantime, we can put in place some common sense gun regulation.