Mental illness doesn’t lead to mass shootings

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When Jason Dalton shot eight people in Kalamazoo on Saturday, Feb. 20, the first responses to reports I read inquired about the status of his mental health; not his motives, not his criminal history, but his mental health.

This has been gnawing at me ever since; there’s something wrong with a population that quickly assumes the rationale behind a mass shooting is one’s mental health status.

On some level, I understand it. Some of the most infamous mass shootings — the Sandy Hook shooting, the Aurora movie theatre shooting and the Virginia Tech shooting, to name a few — have been perpetrated by individuals who reportedly had mental disorders.

A link seems to be present, and many are jumping to the conclusion that mental health and shootings have a cause-and-effect relationship.

One of the biggest problems with this is that it adds weight to the already heavy stigma associated with particular people.

There was some discussion following the Sandy Hook shooting in regards to the shooter being diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, which is an autism spectrum disorder.

As someone whose brother has been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, I found this similarly alarming. I’m afraid of people judging my brother as violent when he’s quite the opposite; this is, after all, a kid who refuses to play violent video games on principle and who won’t kill even the spiders that creep into our house. I’m afraid of people hearing his diagnosis and treating him like a time bomb.

This is not just harmful to those with mental disorders, though; associating disorders with shootings is simply inaccurate.

A 2001 study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry looked at a nonrandom sample of adolescent mass murderers to try to find commonalities that might serve as indicators of a tendency towards violence.

The study found that, of its 34 subjects, the majority were described as “loners” and abused alcohol or drugs. About half of them were bullied, expressed violent desires and had a history of violence. Only 23 percent of the subjects had a documented psychiatric history, and of these, just six percent were deemed psychotic when they committed mass murder.

Some may say the reason for these numbers is a lack of diagnoses indicative of a need for an improved mental health care system.

While I agree with the need for improvement, I don’t think we should pair this conversation with that of mass murder. Doing so worsens the stigma, and if we want more people to seek help for mental health issues, eliminating the stigma is the best solution.

Moreover, mass murder isn’t a problem that a better mental health system can end, because it’s rarely – if at all – catalyzed by mental disorders.

The 2001 study found that most cases had a precipitating event, such as a failure in love or in school.
The researchers grouped most of their subjects into three types: those focused on killing classmates and teachers, those focused on killing family and criminal opportunists.

Adequate mental health care may have aided these individuals, but that’s not why they killed; rather, they killed because they felt like they were justified – like they had faced injustice that merited murder.

The perpetrator in the Isla Vista shootings, for example, had expressed ideas well before the murders that blamed women for their lack of interest in him. The Charleston shooter, too, had held strong, hateful beliefs before he murdered nine people in an African Methodist church.

Mental disorders don’t cause violence – hatred does.

So what should we do?

To quell mass murder numbers, we have to foster an environment of love and equality. This means we have to vote for people who will encourage those ideals in our nation.

Obvious as it may sound, we also have to tell the authorities if someone has indicated they have violent intentions. The 2001 study found that nearly all the subjects had revealed violent desires to someone else shortly before they committed mass murder. We can’t afford to brush it off as a joke or an attempt to gain attention.

Finally, we have to separate mass murders from discussions on mental disorders. We cannot continue to associate innocent populations with violent tendencies.