Anyone who can kill a child at point blank range with an AR-15 is clearly not of typical mental capacity. This does not mean the murderer has a mental health disorder.
Make no mistake, America has a mental health crisis. Based on assessments of 2020 data, more than 20% of the adult population — or some 53 million people — will experience a form of mental illness within a 12-month period. Other estimates suggest it could be even higher at 1 in 4 Americans.
Either way, the rate at which Americans are experiencing mental health disorders is deeply concerning. To make matters worse, experts are prepared for rates to continue surging due to lingering impacts from the pandemic and feelings of economic insecurity.
Given this trajectory, calls for better support and treatment for mental health are a rightful priority. At the same time, to pin the blame for horrific acts of violence such as deadly mass shootings on mental health is a grave disservice and dangerous precedent that further stigmatizes an already marginalized community.
Emerging data show only a small percentage of violent acts are committed by someone with a mental health diagnosis. Furthermore, those who do perpetrate violence with these conditions tend to show repeated patterns over time, or comorbidities, offering warning signs.
In reverse, those with serious mental health conditions are only slightly more violent overall than the general population, and they often present more of a risk to themselves than others. Here the violence is often displayed toward oneself, such as with cutting or suicide. Meanwhile, the vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent.
Regarding mass shootings specifically, one 2018 study by the Federal Bureau of Investigation showed only 25% of active shooters qualified for a mental health diagnosis. In 2015, another study showed only 22%. Interpreted another way, these studies reveal that as much as 75% or more of people who committed mass murders did not qualify for a mental health diagnosis.
Critically, the lack of qualification for a mental health diagnosis does not mean the brain of a killer is functioning in a desirable or typical way — obviously. It does, however, mean that there are many reasons that might influence thinking and behavior beyond mental illness. Key research points to potential factors such as obsession with other shooters, a history of domestic violence, feelings of resentment, desiring notoriety and, most frequently, easy access to guns.
Turning to experts in mental health, the American Psychological Association once again responded to gun violence in light of the most recent mass shootings. In a prepared statement, President Frank Worrell highlighted the importance of addressing gun violence as a matter of public health — a strategy that primarily includes stringent gun reform.
“A public health crisis requires a public health approach. APA has long advocated for gun safety, including background checks of prospective gun buyers, safe gun storage, laws implementing extreme risk protection orders and substantially more research into the psychological factors that lead to gun violence.”
But there is one aspect of mental health that should be directly linked to mass murders every time: the distress experienced by survivors, their families and the nation at large.
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Whether the trauma of a mass shooting causes grief, post traumatic stress disorders, anxiety or depression, these can be very real and frequently very serious mental health conditions that can impact a person for the rest of their life. To conflate the experience of victims as similar in nature to that of the perpetrator can feel dismissive and angering to those impacted, and suggesting mental health is the common root also falsely conveys a new propensity for violence and that the perpetrator is suffering from a condition equally sympathetic as to that of the victims.
There’s no doubt Americans need better access to mental health treatments — and I sincerely hope we work on this issue. But it’s not primarily mental health that’s murdering our children; it’s the unfettered access to high-powered guns.
Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation’s top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado.
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