Alanna Berger: On mental health and mass shootings

Sunday, September 8, 2019 - 4:37pm

“Mental illness and hate pulls the trigger, not the gun,” said President Donald Trump at a White House address following the back-to-back shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio in early August. Trump’s words echo a greater sentiment put forth by a multitude of politicians and gun rights advocates in the days following mass shootings. 

In the wake of the mass shootings that have plagued the United States for the better part of two decades, elected officials and various public figures have often steered the debate away from gun control toward mental illness issues within the country. Perhaps, at first, this seems to make sense. To many Americans, the thought of entering a public space with high powered weapons for the sole purpose of killing innocent strangers is incomprehensible. A sensible conclusion seems to be that no individual of a sound mind would do such a thing, and therefore such a perpetrator must have some sort of mental illness. 

However, the majority of research demonstrates that the propensity to make a connection between mass gun violence and mental illness is misguided. Though some high-profile mass shooters, such as those who committed the massacres at Virginia Tech, in Tucson, Ariz. and in Newtown, Conn., had a history of mental illness, evidence demonstrates this relationship is not causal. 

The first piece of evidence to disprove the relationship between mental illness and mass gun violence is that the United States is not unique in terms of rates of mental health issues. In fact, statistics show rates of mental illness remain roughly the same throughout the world. When compared with peer nations such as Canada, Ireland or Germany, the United States demonstrates similar rates of mental illness. If mental illness was truly the main cause of these random acts of mass violence, then the rates of mass shootings in these countries should be comparable to those in the United States. However, when it comes to gun violence, the United States stands alone among its peers. As of 2017, gun-related deaths comprise 73 percent of homicides in the United States, compared with 3 percent in England and Wales as of 2017, 38 percent in Canada as of 2018 and 13 percent in Australia as of 2013. In fact, gun homicides in the U.S. are at a 25.2 times higher rate than gun homicides in other comparable developed nations. Additionally, the United States ranks as the 28th highest in terms of rates of deaths from gun violence worldwide, far higher than other developed countries. While the mental illness epidemic appears to be universal, the gun violence epidemic remains uniquely American. 

Another counterpoint to the notion of mental illness as a cause of mass shootings or gun violence is the fact that mentally ill individuals, in reality, commit a small fraction of overall violent crimes. Data from the National Center for Health Statistics shows that less than 5 percent of violent crimes are committed by those with diagnosable mental illnesses. Thus, those with mental health issues are overall unlikely to perpetrate violent crimes, including gun violence and mass shootings. Moreover, further statistics demonstrate that mentally ill individuals are, in fact, much more likely to be the victims of violent crimes. More than 25 percent of those diagnosed with a mental illness will be the victim of a violent crime. It seems that the existence of a mental illness is a far better predictor of victimization of violence rather than of perpetration. 

At this point, it is clear that a mental illness does not make an individual more likely to harm others in acts of gun violence. However, there is another link between mental illness and gun violence that often remains undiscussed. Suicides have long accounted for the majority of gun-related deaths in the United States. Suicide by firearm is also an extremely brutal method, accounting for less than 6 percent of suicide attempts but over half of fatalities. Furthermore, ease of access to guns contributes to suicide risk. People living in states with high rates of household gun ownership are four times as likely to die by gun-related suicide when compared to states with lower rates of household gun ownership. In this sense, there appears to be a link between gun violence and mental health struggles. However, access to firearms proves to be a greater risk to the mentally ill themselves rather than to the rest of  society as a whole. 

In the wake of mass shootings that continually rattle the United States, politicians repeatedly blame the mental health crisis for the carnage. This is an issue that persists on both sides of the ideological spectrum, with Trump blaming the mentally ill for pulling the trigger and Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo calling for a “mental health data base to prevent the dangerously mentally ill from purchasing a firearm.” Repeatedly placing the blame for our gun violence crisis on the nation’s mentally ill, an already vulnerable and stigmatized population, is unfair and dangerous. The fact of the matter is that both mental illness and gun violence are massive public health epidemics inflicting untold damage on the American populace. 

Even though the brazen capacity for violence demonstrated in high profile mass shootings seems far outside the bounds of sanity to most people, mental illness is decidedly not responsible for the high rates of gun violence in the United States (barring those related to suicide). In order to properly provide for our nation’s mentally ill, we must dispel harmful stereotypes that mental health issues are responsible for one of our worst national scourges and begin to look elsewhere to combat our gun violence epidemic. 

Alanna Berger can be reached at balanna@umich.edu.