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