NYAPRS Note: Today’s Albany Times Union features a very timely Op Ed from NYAPRS Policy Specialist Tom Templeton that focuses on ‘Getting the Facts Right about Mass Shootings and Mental Illnesses (the submitted title).’ It provides a very well-documented challenge to unfounded claims advanced by some federal legislators, media and advocacy groups that lead to calls for regressive and costly policies like paying for more hospital beds over ‘upstream’ community services and an expansion of coercive outpatient commitment programs.
Assumption Of Mental Illness In Shootings Growing, Wrong
By Tom Templeton, NYAPRS Public Policy Specialist Albany Times Union Commentary December 28, 2015
As the perceived frequency of mass shootings becomes ever more alarming, the knee-jerk assumption that gunmen have mental health conditions has become routine. Even mainstream broadcast news outlets react to mass shootings by immediately having psychiatrists or other mental health professionals on as guests as if to corroborate the public's collective psychiatric diagnosis of each perpetrator. But let's look at the facts.
According to Jeffrey Simon, a political science professor at UCLA who studies mass shootings, gunmen possess a range of motivations for killing that may be personal, political, and/or religious. Perpetrators may be angry, vengeful young men, or terrorists whose closely held ideologies conflict with the world around them. Regardless, their motivations are complex, often intersect, and cannot simply be reduced to issues of mental health.
It is understandable how one might characterize those who engage in disturbing, horrific or unfathomable behaviors as "crazy," but those actions do not automatically reflect a formal psychiatric diagnosis, typically involving a thought or mood disorder.
Case in point: Robert Lewis Dear is accused of opening fire Nov. 27 at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, Colo., in a mass shooting that killed three people. Almost instantaneously, Dear was referred to by both the press and the public — including local, state, and federal politicians — as "mentally ill," yet there was no definitive evidence of him having ever been clinically diagnosed or having acted in a manner that linked him with having a mental health condition.
Even if it turns out that Dear meets the criteria for a psychiatric diagnosis, the information both the public and the media had access to just after the shooting was utterly insufficient to draw that conclusion.
This extremely stigmatizing assumption that mental illness is at the root of all mass shootings has been heavily advanced in recent days by our highest-ranking elected officials in Washington, including Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, who has repeatedly referred to mental illness as the "common denominator" in mass shootings. He and others are portraying passage of controversial legislation, particularly Rep. Tim Murphy's "Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act," as an answer to this violence.
Murphy presented his bill as a direct response to the December 2012 mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., and has reaffirmed it as a comprehensive violence prevention measure ever since. Central to his bill has been the expansion of a Kendra's Law-styled involuntary outpatient commitment program called Assisted Outpatient Treatment.
But the expert whose research on AOT has been cited to advance the program — Jeffrey Swanson — has made it very clear that "people who understand what outpatient commitment is would never say [it] is a violence prevention strategy," and that "those people who are interested in promoting outpatient commitment and rolling back civil commitment reforms have focused on the violence issue, because that is what moves public opinion."
Moreover, contrary to growing public opinion, a study by Everytown for Gun Safety conducted using data from mass shootings between 2009 and 2015 found that in only 11% of cases were gunmen suspected of having mental health concerns prior to the incidents.
Overall, only about 5% of violent crime is committed by people diagnosed with serious mental health conditions, and data shows that these individuals actually use fewer guns than the general public and are in fact 11 times more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators.
The repercussions of assuming that mental illness is the “common denominator” in mass shootings are significant. If the goal is to substantially reduce mass shootings, addressing mental health will not – according to the research – have a meaningful impact on their frequency.
Make no mistake, improving mental healthcare in the United States should be a priority, but it should not deflect attention away from issues such as gun control in an effort to stem violence.
Finally, the exaggerated public perception that mental illness causes mass shootings exacerbates the already pervasive stigma that exists for those who possess a mental health condition. Stigma of that kind prevents people from seeking or following up with the needed services that often play an instrumental role in their recovery, a tragedy in its own right.