Stop Using Mental Illness as a Scapegoat for Mass Shootings

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Monday, August 12, 2019


After 31 people were killed in two mass shootings in Texas and Ohio, President Trump blamed the two shootings on a variety of potential causes, but primarily on mental health and lax gun laws regarding background checks. “Mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger, not the gun,” he said. And while that’s already a dangerously misleading statement, he topped it off by saying, “We must reform our mental health laws to better identify mentally disturbed individuals who may commit acts of violence and make sure those people not only get treatment, but, when necessary, involuntary confinement.”

President Trump’s statements are incorrect and only serve to make our culture’s stigma surrounding mental health even more cruel. It’s factually incorrect to say that mental health pulls the trigger. 

It’s true that many mass shooters and other perpetrators of gun violence suffered from psychological distress; the Secret Service found that around two thirds of mass shooters in 2018 showed symptoms of a mental illness, mainly psychotic and depressive disorders, and likewise in their 2017 report. However, there is no proven correlation between mental health problems and gun violence. Research from Paul Appelbaum, a leading psychiatrist and researcher, and the Center for Disease Control (CDC), found that only 3-5% of crimes in the U.S. were committed by a mentally ill perpetrator, and, when singling out crimes that involved a gun, the percentage was even lower. Research suggests that the risk of violence is elevated during select periods, like a psychiatric hospitalization or the initial onset of psychosis, but only in certain subgroups with serious mental illness. 

The biggest threat between gun violence and mental illness is suicide, not murder. Recent research from the CDC and other databases concludes that the majority of gun deaths, between 50 and 65 percent, in the U.S. are from suicide. The increasing prevalence of Americans with depressive and anxiety disorders contributes to this tragic phenomenon, but, according to available research, suicide is much more of a risk related to firearms among people with mental health issues than murder. And the difficulty in accessing mental health treatment across the country, amplified by our culture’s negative stigma towards mental illness, only makes suicide more common

President Trump’s comments aren’t anything new. As a society, we’ve been inaccurately blaming the mentally ill for our own ills since the 1950s, but this just reflects how most people don’t understand mental health. 

Having a mental illness means that having an imbalance of certain chemicals in one’s brain that can throw one’s mood or perceptions of reality off, and it can be acute or a long-term condition. Having a mental illness does not make a person dangerous, intimidating, violent, or someone who deserves less respect than a psychologically sound individual. Around one in five Americans (around 46.6 million people) suffer from a mental illness in any given year. Anxiety disorders and depressive disorders are the most commonly-diagnosed, and around one in twenty five adults will suffer from a severe mental illness in any given year. We interact with them day to day, and, in most cases, it isn’t possible to tell a person with a mental illness apart from a person without a mental illness.

Using mental health as a scapegoat only makes society’s stigma around mental health more harsh. Attaching mass shootings with mental health issues is not only factually incorrect, but it hurts everyone suffering from a mental illness. If society fears the mentally ill and associates them with violence, those affected populations are less likely to seek help. They are more likely to bottle up their emotions, allowing their conditions to spiral.  This directly correlates to the prevalence of suicide. 

This hurts anyone with a mental illness, whether a more mild one like dysthymia (mild, chronic depression) or a severe one like schizophrenia because society fails to understand the depth and complexity of mental health. 

Targeting these populations with “red flag” laws, or a “mental health database” as proposed by Governor Cuomo of New York, will fail to make a significant impact on gun violence as research suggests, but will make people more fearful of a relatively non-violent demographic. As a medical field, psychiatry should be more observational and therapeutic than exploitative and damning. Psychiatrists and therapists have key patient confidentiality that helps protect the patient’s rights from unwise bureaucrats. No research suggests that these laws can prevent mass shootings. 

The conservative movement should address both the false claims about gun violence and mass shootings and the uninformed and harmful stigma surrounding mental health. Pointing towards institutional problems with local law enforcement and/or cultural problems is a better step towards solving this issue. Using mental health as a scapegoat does nothing but worsen our society and avoids taking actual steps to address our ills. 

Aidan McIntosh is a member of The Catholic University of America's Class of 2022. After Edward Snowden's revelations about the N.S.A. in 2013, he began to take an interest in politics and understand the merits of limited government and personal freedom. He has a strong passion for constitutional law, religious liberty, and foreign policy, and enjoys hiking, powerlifting, and writing about music.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.


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About Aidan McIntosh

Catholic University

Aidan McIntosh is a member of The Catholic University of America's Class of 2022. After Edward Snowden's revelations about the N.S.A. in 2013, he began to take an interest in politics and understand the merits of limited government and personal freedom. He has a strong passion for constitutional law, religious liberty, and foreign policy, and enjoys hiking, powerlifting, and writing about music.

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