Mass Shootings and Mental Health

Two weekends ago, the United States had two heavily publicized mass shootings within fewer than 24 hours of each other: one in El Paso, Texas, and one in Dayton, Ohio. Between the two mass shootings, over 30 lives were senselessly cut short. 

In the wake of such tragedies, many of us, regardless of political affiliation, try to seek out explanations for these mass shootings. But, given my own openness about mental health on this blog, I think that I need to address just how problematic it is to simply blame mass shootings on mental health problems.

Blaming mass shootings on mental health problems makes me, and other people who’ve struggled with their mental health, feel misunderstood. By blaming mass shootings on mental health problems, we are creating this portrayal of mental health issues as something that is monstrous and seeks to do harm to others. The reality, though, is that there is a range of mental health issues, many of which have nothing to do with a desire to harm others. For example, my intrusive thoughts (unwelcome, unpleasant, and upsetting thoughts and ideas), which I’ve talked about on my blog did not involve even the slightest of desires to harm anyone else; instead, the intrusive thoughts involved a fear of my wanting to do harm to myself, even though I didn’t even want to harm myself. My friends and family who have struggled with anxiety and depression (issues different from intrusive thoughts, by the way) have never expressed a desire to harm others, either. In the wake of many mass shootings, mental illness is often associated with harm of others, even though many of us have mental health issues where we fight against harm of self, not a harm of others.

The consequences of feeling or being misunderstood with mental health are serious. According to mental health experts, stigmatizing mental health issues after mass shootings likely makes it harder for people to seek the treatment they need than it would if mental health issues were not as stigmatized.[1] We, therefore, create a situation where people struggle to seek treatment for conditions that in many cases seek no harm of others, precisely because we link harm to others with mental health issues. That is not what we need if we want to address individual mental health crises.

Even though it is problematic to link mass shootings with mental health issues, we should not ignore the serious problems with America’s mental health system. We should not lose sight of the fact that the United States lacks stand-alone mental health legislation,[2] and we should not lose sight of the fact that many patients in the United States struggle to get access to mental healthcare.[3] If we want to improve individuals’ mental health, we should avoid blaming mass shootings on mental illnesses, but instead improve our mental health care system.


[1] It is worth having this quote from an American Psychological Association statement dated August 4; this quote was published in TIME Magazine: “Routinely blaming mass shootings on mental illness is unfounded and stigmatizing. 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.”

[2] https://www.who.int/gho/mental_health/policy_financing/policy_health_plan/en/

[3] https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2017/11/29/567264925/health-insurers-are-still-skimping-on-mental-health-coverage

39 Replies to “Mass Shootings and Mental Health”

    1. Yes, I think there’s a lot that goes into making someone a murderer as well. The thing is that I do believe that we need gun control AND we need better mental health care in the states, but I don’t know how much that will reduce these tragedies (though my guess is that better gun education/safety/restrictions would cut down on accidental shooting deaths and injuries). Especially mental health care–many of us, including yours truly, don’t have mental health issues that have anything to do with a desire to harm others.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. Brendan, I agree when you say: “By blaming mass shootings on mental health problems, we are creating this portrayal of mental health issues as something that is monstrous and seeks to do harm to others.” Those who benefit from arming the general population with lethal weapons will always find scapegoats to avoid gun control laws that would save human lives.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. If mental health issues were the PRIMARY cause of these shootings then all nations of the world would have similar death counts. The US is hardly the only place where human beings have problems. It’s the guns. Plain and simple. It’s not hard to figure out. In fact, in the cases of the white supremacists using guns to kill people is a logical conclusion to the philosophy.

    Trump and Fox and Moscow Mitch all support the idea that immigrants are an enemy. Blacks are an enemy. Liberals are the enemy. The free press is the enemy. Cities like Baltimore harbor human vermin (black people).

    The logical step to take, if you believe this tripe, is to exterminate the enemy. Exterminate the vermin. Be a hero. This is not a “mental health ” issue. It is an issue of people who are a combination of stupid, nasty and easily led. Blood is on the hands of Hannity, Carlson, Trump, Fox TV and the rest of the bigots. The only way to end the gun violence is to heavily restrict the types of guns available to the general public. Nothing else will work.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Exactly. And others have made the point that if it were about mental health issues, the number of mass shootings in each country would be similar (similar as in a similar ratio of mass shooters as compared to other countries). But that is not the case. Which makes me conclude, like you, that it is not mental health. I don’t know how much mass shootings would not happen as a result of gun control, but I definitely think gun control is needed. That and a ban on bulletproof armor. It seems like almost every mass shooting involves a shooter with bulletproof armor who must feel invincible with the armor. If you take armor out of the picture, shooters will feel less invincible maybe. Say what you want about the 2nd Amendment, but there is no constitutional right to bulletproof armor. Just my two cents.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. You make a good point that blaming mass shootings on mental health in a blanket way paints mental illness as dangerous. It can be dangerous, but I’d bet that most mental illness isn’t. However, we do need to treat mental health more seriously in America. A lot of societal issues, even some mass shootings, do stem from mental illness being downplayed and untreated.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. It is easy to blame the shootings on mental illness and it makes a talking point that steers people away from gun reform. Mental illness needs to be addressed as an entity in of itself, by grouping it in with shootings does no one any good and just becomes a circular issue which is what a lot of people want so they don’t have to look at the real issues.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Absolutely. I wanted to make it clear in my post that mental health should still absolutely be addressed, but that it should be addressed independent of/separate from the mass shootings.

      Also, just to make an observation here, deflecting the conversation towards mental illnesses does not seem to result in any mental health reform, unless I’m missing something.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Of course it doesn’t result in any mental health reform. It’s not intended to. The only reason Republicans shift blame onto mental illness is the same as the reason they shift blame onto video games or anything else — to avoid talking about gun control and their subservience to the NRA.

        Mental health reform would also cost money, and Republicans hate that.

        (I don’t believe gun control would help much either, but this is the reality of what the Republicans are doing.)

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Yeah, the cynic in me believes like the rest of you, that shifting the discussion to mental health is meant to be a distraction more than anything else. I also think Infidel753 accurately explains why there’d be a lack of desire for actual mental health reform, as opposed to shifting gun violence blame to mental health.

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  5. Thank you so much for this reasoned response. I tend to get angry and sputter at the casual connecting of gun violence with mental health issues (which is never done with a specific disorder just with a generalized definition). this is much better.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yeah, the casual connecting of gun violence and mental health really frustrates me as well. It is done with a generalized definition, and you may also notice that all the talk of linking gun violence to mental illness does not actually result in mental health care reforms (which are actually needed, separate from mass shootings).

      Like

    1. More than one shooter has been a left wing terrorist also. Take the guy who tried to kill the Republican congressional softball team in DC. Isn’t it time we stopped falling for false us vs them arguments? ANYBODY that would shoot another human being except as life and death last resort self defense IS mentally ill in my opinion.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s a good point–there was a congressperson from Louisiana shot at and badly injured by a left wing terrorist. It seems like most of the threats lately have been more on the right-wing/white supremacist side though, so I can see why there’s a lot of focus on right-wing terrorism.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. It’s a disproportionately large part of the problem, I admit. The media still makes it look bigger than it is though. The El Paso shooter was an extreme environmentalist who thought Mexican immigrants were helping destroy the environment. Is he left, right, or just crazy? The media painted him as white supremacist only. Media agenda is a side issue though. My bigger point is I want ALL shooters stopped, not just the white supremacist ones,

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I absolutely agree with you that we want all shooters stopped, and that it’s almost certainly a bigger picture than what is often portrayed (even though alt-right terrorism does seem to be a part of the problem right now). By the way, this was the first I learned that environmentalism was involved in the manifesto of the El Paso shooter.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Great article! I’ve been saying very similar things for a long time. It’s discouraged me how often I get accused of simply wanting to see more people shot as a response.

    Mental health is badly broken in my state, and as best I can tell the rest of the US as well. We’ve gone from ostracizing the mentally ill to turning a blind eye to too much and saying don’t judge. We desperately need a compassionate reasonable middle ground, AND to have mental health checks as part of gun purchase background checks.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for the compliment!

      Mental healthcare is definitely broken nationwide, in my humble opinion. I have nothing wrong with mental health checks, but it’s also worth remembering that many mental health conditions do not seek harm to others, at all.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh I know. Hence my use of the phrase “Compassionate reasonable middle ground”. Somebody with mild depression is not a criminal nor a danger to themselves or others. They shouldn’t be stigmatized or “punished” in any way. Somebody who is delusional and violent though… Lock them up in a psychiatric facility, & make sure they’re getting compassionate treatment while no longer a danger to themselves or others..

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Seems problematic not to consider mental health as a significant factor! The Parkland shooter had know mental problems; had been visited by the Broward County Sheriffs Department on maybe 90 occasions; and was as a threat at school.

    So let’s blame ot on guns!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Parkland shooter was just one shooter of many we’ve had over the years, though. I would also say that other countries have people with mental illnesses but don’t have the sorts of problems with mass shootings that we do in the States. It seems to be something else going on.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Thank you so much for so clearly bringing this out. This is definitely a conversation that needs to be had on a bigger stage. I’ve often felt uncomfortable that police chiefs, journalists and media outlets quickly point to unfounded mental health issues as a “motive” or quick explanation. I can definitely see how this stigma can make it that much harder to get needed treatment and support. The success of other countries’ ability to reduce or prevent mass shootings is proof that stricter gun laws would do the same here. Mental health clearly isn’t the issue. I hope God soon rids this world of the wicked people willing to allow us to continue to suffer just so they can keep their political positions and their pockets full (Psalms 37:10,11).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve also felt uncomfortable with unfounded mental health issues listed as an explanation for a mass shooting. As you pointed out, other countries have been able to reduce or prevent mass shootings, but those countries are not without people who struggle with their mental health, either. Which, to me, goes to show that the problem is not mental health.

      That being said, our mental health care system in this country is broken and needs serious fixing. But I think that conversation should go well beyond gun violence and tragedies.

      Like

  9. I believe they are at at a loss to figure out why someone would randomly seek to take a life, so they blame it on mental illness..
    If you tally up mass shootings you will find a large number were prescribed psychotropic drugs to improve their mental state prior to the act..
    I have spoken to people who were given these drugs and they can cause a person to drastically change their personality.. suicidal thoughts and thoughts of harming others.. but the FDA will not conceive to look at the odds..
    One mans antidote is another mans poison..

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yep. It is already difficult for many to admit to having mental health issues, let alone taking care of those issues. Considering that fact, it’s important to make sure that we do everything possible to destigmatize mental health issues, not add stigma.

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