With recent mass shootings in Dayton Ohio and El Paso Texas still near the top of the US news cycle, one article summarizes the typical profile of the killers:
Most studies of mass shooters have found that no more than a quarter of them have diagnosed mental illness. Researchers have noted that more commonly shared attributes include a strong sense of resentment, desire for notoriety, obsessions with other shooters, a history of domestic violence, narcissism, and access to firearms.
Studies have found that violent behavior by persons with a major mental disorder who do not abuse substances is about the same as the general population who do not abuse substances. However, when someone with a mental illness also abuses a substance, the risk of violence doubles.
In spite of these facts, the president of the United States has been using his bully pulpit in recent days not only to finger mental illness as a cause of mass shootings, but even to advocate for the reopening of mental institutions as a way to prevent future such incidents. This assertion is foolish and dangerous.
As the United States chief law enforcement officer, the president’s decision to link mental illness to mass shootings steers local, state, and federal law makers and law enforcement officials away from proven personality traits of likely mass shooters and reduces law makers’ and enforcement officers’ ability to act on these proven factors to prevent these horrors.
Just as bad, the president’s assertion heaps more stigma on the heads of people living with mental health conditions. His assertion could drive people showing symptoms of mental illness away from seeking treatment, especially among gun owners. It’s not hard to hear someone thinking, “I know I’m not well, but there is no way I’m going admit to dealing with a mental illness if it might mean that someone will take away my guns.”
According to research curated by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), one in five of us have a mental illness. We must not reopen mental institutions which were ineffective in treating mental illness and often resulted in abuse of residents. Instead, Americans need to engage in a national conversation on how we can help people with mental health challenges find and pay for treatments which are proven effective. The same NAMI research finds that three quarters of all chronic mental illness begins by age 24. Although effective treatments are available, long delays—sometimes decades—divide the first appearance of symptoms and when people get help.
The human toll of untreated mental illness can be devastating. When people with mental health conditions engage in violent behaviors, they usually direct that behavior against themselves with suicide being the second leading cause of death among people aged 10 to 34, and with more than 90 percent of people who die by suicide showing symptoms of a mental health condition. People with serious mental illnesses die on average 25 years earlier than others, largely due to treatable medical conditions. Serious mental illness costs America nearly $200 billion in lost earnings per year.
In a previous blog, I cited research that indicated one other potential factor in mass shootings—the lack of strong social bonds. My conclusion to that blog is a good way to end this one too. The last thing we want to do is further stigmatize people with mental health challenges. Instead, we can work to prevent mass shootings by reducing the social isolation of “the loners” among us, by loving as Christ first loved us. “One thing every one of us can do is love one another, including the neighbor who wants to be left alone. Maybe especially the neighbor who just wants to be left alone.”
Update, September 10, 2019: The president is consistent in his analysis of mass shootings. After another mass shooting in Odessa TX on August 31, President Trump once again said that the issue is a "mental problem". Since then, according to the Washington Post, “The White House is considering a controversial proposal to study whether mass shootings could be prevented by monitoring mentally ill people for small changes that might foretell violence.” If this legislation passed, it would be ineffective in preventing mass shootings, and it would allow the government to spy on one fifth of US citizens who have various mental health diagnoses.