After a year of misery the United States has finally begun to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic. With the long awaited opening of public places has come the return of another threat to our wellbeing: mass shootings. These events are tragic. Moreover, it has become commonplace to attribute these horrific actions as physical manifestations of mental illness. This has led to a common sentiment amongst many Americans that individuals with mental illness are violent and dangerous (Metzl & MacLeish, 2015). Today we want to demystify this false attribution through epidemiological data on violence in the United States!
Several large studies have sought to evaluate the relationship between mental illness and violence. Each study has come up with very similar results: mental illness is not a good predictor of violence. In-fact the rates of violence in the mentally ill community are equivalent to the rates of violence in the non-mentally ill community. In reality, individuals struggling with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence than the general population (Glied & Frank, 2014; Netzl & MacLeish, 2015; Rueve & Welton, 2008; Stuart, 2003).
It is important to acknowledge that one of the strongest determinants of violent behavior is substance abuse. Though it is important to recognize that the use of alcohol and illicit substances is common to both the general population as well as individuals struggling with mental illness (Glied & Frank, 2014). Additionally, one should also consider that the relationship between violence and substance use is complicated as risk factors for both substance use and violence overlap (such as low socioeconomic status, poor social support, etc…) (Glied & Frank, 2014; Jaffe et al., 2009). Importantly, stigmatizing those who use illicit substances only further exacerbates the issue. If you truly want to decrease crime in this population, the answer is increased access to services and a supportive community that works to help those who are struggling!
Viewing mass shootings and other violent acts as simply “actions of the mentally ill” is harmful. It further stigmatizes those with mental illness and adds to the social isolation that worsens their condition.