Stop blaming mental illness for mass shootings

After Uvalde, Gov. Greg Abbott tied the murder of teachers and their students to a…

Stop blaming mental illness for mass shootings

After Uvalde, Gov. Greg Abbott tied the murder of teachers and their students to a mentally ill gunman, the same explanation he cited after mass shootings at a high school in Santa Fe in 2018 and at a Walmart store in El Paso in 2019. Abbott reprised that line after the carnage at the Allen Premium Outlets earlier this month. “People want a quick solution,” Abbott said during a television interview about the Allen killings. “The long-term solution here is to address the mental health issue.”

If only the connection were that simple.

Politicians who want to avoid confronting the proliferation of deadly weapons find refuge in urging increased investments in mental health as the solution to mass shootings. Mental illness would seem to be a convenient and plausible explanation of abhorrent, inexplicable carnage. However, extensive medical literature suggests otherwise.

According to one analysis of gun violence and mental health data, 20% of U.S. adults, or roughly 53 million people, met criteria in 2020 for at least one psychiatric diagnosis in the previous year, and nearly 6%, or roughly 14 million people, had a serious, impairing mental illness such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depression.

Stop blaming mental illness for mass shootings


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However, most of these people are not violent, researchers concluded. And if mental illnesses disappeared tomorrow, violence would decrease by only about 4%, and more than 90% of violent incidents, including homicides, would still occur, they concluded.

A 2018 FBI study of the behaviors of mass shooters prior to their attacks reaches a similar finding. A majority of mass shooters experienced mental health “stressors” such as anxiety and depression, but did not have a diagnosed mental illness. Just 25% had been diagnosed by a health professional with a mental illness “of any kind” prior to an attack, and of those diagnosed with a mental illness, only a few had a psychotic disorder often associated with violence. Less than 5% had a record that would have barred them from gun ownership, such as an involuntary commitment to a mental health facility.

Texas and most states need to invest more in mental health services because our friends and neighbors may need help to overcome alienation, resentful anger, crisis, trauma and significant personal loss, not because we expect those investments to prevent mass shootings. Other countries deal with mental health issues, but no other industrialized nation has the level of gun violence in the United States. The free flow of weapons of war such as the AR-15 and the collective failure to enact commonsense gun safety laws here are the reasons the U.S. brand of violence has been so deadly and so frequent since 2000.

The myriad motivations behind mass shootings are far more nuanced and complex than the rote political responses that blame mental illness. To solve a problem, the right questions must be asked, and convenient but inaccurate talking points rejected. Until politicians stop steering the discussion toward mental health, a proven canard, and deal with overly permissive gun laws, too, mass shootings will remain a national scourge.

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