Mental Illness Is Unfairly Scapegoated In Mass Shootings

Dec 14, 2014 at 9:50 AM ET

Two years ago this Sunday, 20-year-old Adam Lanza burst into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and fatally shot 20 children and six adults with his mother’s Bushmaster XM15-E2S rifle. The incident—one of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history—left the entire country reeling and ignited a national debate over gun control and mental health. Many were led to believe that the latter was largely to blame for the massacre, but according to a new study by Vanderbilt University, mental illness is wrongly used as a scapegoat when it comes to extreme acts of violence.

“Gun discourse after mass shootings often perpetuates the fear that ‘some crazy person is going to come shoot me,’” says Dr. Jonathan Metzl, the study’s lead author. “But if you look at the research, it’s not the ‘crazy’ person you have to fear.”

Metzl and his colleagues analyzed data and literature from the past 40 years and found that the link between individual mental health issues and mass shootings is actually unsubstantiated. Instead, they found that most gun violence is committed by relatives, friends or acquaintances of the victim(s), rather than a lone psychopath.

“Fewer than 5 percent of the 120,000 gun-related killings in the United States between 2001 and 2010 were perpetrated by people diagnosed with mental illness,” they write. “Our research finds that across the board, the mentally ill are 60 to 120 percent more likely than the average person to be the victims of violent crime rather than the perpetrators.”

They also found four common myths that regularly resurface in the fallout from mass shootings:

  1. Mental illness causes gun violence.
  2. Psychiatric diagnosis can predict gun crime before it happens.
  3. U.S. mass-shootings “prove” that we should fear mentally ill loners.
  4. Because of the complex psychiatric histories of mass-shooters, gun control “won’t prevent” mass shootings.

The problem with these illusions, Metzl argues, is that they distract people from important issues involved in the prevention of shooting deaths in the U.S.—one being gun legislation.

“We should set our attention and gun policies on the everyday shootings, not on the sensational shootings, because there we will get much more traction in preventing gun crime,” he says.

Surprisingly, Metzl also found that even the psychiatric screening of gun owners does little to prevent these crimes—a commonly touted solution in the aftermath of Sandy Hook. The study shows that even those who fit the profile of typical mass shooters, as in “gun-owning, angry, paranoid white men,” do not often commit murder. Factors that typically do predict gun violence, however, include drug and alcohol use, a history of violence, firearm access and personal relationship stress.

“Basing gun crime-prevention efforts on the mental health histories of mass shooters risks building ‘common evidence’ from ‘uncommon things,’ all while giving mental health providers the untenable responsibility of preventing the next massacre,” Metzl writes.

Metzl concludes that voters and lawmakers would be better off turning their attention to the system, rather than obsessing over individual perpetrators like Adam Lanza. Discussion should be about access to mental health care, medication and the availability of health insurance, rather than what exactly caused Lanza to crack.

“In a way, it is a failure of the system often that becomes represented as a failure of the individual,” says Metzl.