Debunking the Myth of Mental Illness as a Major Factor in Mass Shootings
Today the Chicago Tribune ran a recent story by Michael S. Rosenwald, a Washington Post journalist who regularly writes on the topic of mass shootings in the United States. It is difficult reading for anyone convinced that mental illness plays an important role in such incidents.
“It would be ridiculous to hope that doing something about the mental-health system will stop these mass murders,” said Michael Stone, a forensic psychiatrist at the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons and author of “The Anatomy of Evil,” which examines the personalities of brutal killers. “It’s really folly.”
Stone maintains a database of more than 300 killers, most of them shooters of four or more people. He essentially breaks mental illness into two categories. In the first category are those with schizophrenia, delusions and other psychoses that separate them from reality and who are suffering from serious mental illness and could be helped with medical treatment. In the second are those with personality, antisocial or sociopathic disorders who may exhibit paranoia, callousness or a severe lack of empathy but know exactly what they are doing.
In a paper published last year, Stone found that just about 2 out of 10 mass killers were suffering from serious mental illness. The rest had personality or antisocial disorders or were disgruntled, jilted, humiliated or full of intense rage. They were unlikely to be identified or helped by the mental-health system, reformed or not.
This is not to say that there haven’t been mass shooters who DID truly suffer from mental illness. The Colorado theater shooter and Virginia Tech shooter are given as prime examples of this. Even so, it seems clear that is these cases are the exception.
So who would be pushing for this grossly oversimplified focus on mental illness?
One is the news media, which looks for and raises the mental-illness story line after major incidents, sometimes without confirmation but with profound effects. Readers of news articles linking mental illness to a mass shooting “reported significantly higher perceived dangerousness of, and desired social distance from, people with serious mental illness in general,” according to a paper by researchers at Duke and Johns Hopkins universities.
Another is the NRA, whose officials, in fighting off tighter gun-control policies, have called mass shooters “so deranged, so evil, so possessed by voices and driven by demons that no sane person can even possibly comprehend them.”
The mental health system in this country absolutely requires attention and greater funding. Even so, allowing the public to derive a false sense of security from this would be tragic when this story quotes a study showing that the mentally ill are far more likely to be the victims of crime than perpetrators.
This author has also now written a sequel to this story featuring a closer look at how extreme beliefs, not mental illness, may fuel mass shooters.
There is, of course, a common thread between most mentally ill mass shooters and those who kill out of sociopathy and extreme beliefs: easy access to extremely powerful weapons designed only to kill as many as possible as quickly as possible.