Editor’s Note: This piece originally ran in November of 2017 following the mass shooting at Sutherland Springs church in Texas that killed 26 people. This weekend, two mass shootings killed at least 29 people and injured dozens more.
“This is a mental health problem.”
Every time another tragic act of violence sweeps our country, some variation of this statement gets tossed around. In 2017 alone, there have been 385 shootings in which at least four people were injured or killed. In response, politicians and faith leaders alike shift the conversation toward mental health. Pat Robertson, for example, announced on his popular television program, The 700 Club that we need to investigate links between antidepressants and violence:
There’s got to be a thorough investigation into the effect of antidepressants … There’ve been so many of these mass killings and almost every one, as I said before, has had some nexus to antidepressants. So, we need to see what we are giving people.
The problem with statements like this? They’re wrong.
Doctors, psychiatrists and researchers have repeatedly stated there’s no evidence of a link between mental health medications and higher rates of violence.
Other statements from politicians and leaders are less specific, linking mental illness with violence and mass shootings overall. Again, the problem here is that there’s simply no basis for these claims.
People usually make this connection saying “A person must be mentally ill if they can walk into a church [or theatre or concert, insert your venue of choice] and kill all those innocent people.” And while mass murders are absurd—“crazy” even—there is a difference between someone who snaps and massacres a multitude of people and the person who lives with persistent severe depression or other diagnosed mental illness.
It is true that some agents of violence are (or have been) mentally ill but just because there is sometimes a correlation, it doesn’t make mental illness the cause. People die in hospitals everyday, but we don’t say the hospital is killing them. There have been pastors who have abused their power, teachers who have become violent and mothers who have abused their children. But we don’t say that all pastors, teachers or mother are violent. Correlation does not equal causation.
According to reports by the CDC, in 2014, there were 65.9 million visits to physician offices in America with mental disorders as the primary diagnosis. In that same year, there were 5 million visits to emergency departments with mental disorders as the primary diagnosis. If violence was actually a mental health problem, we should be seeing far higher occurrences of mass shootings than we already do.
When we carelessly make this connection, we are further stigmatizing those who live with persistent mental illness. We are implying that the folks who sing in our church choirs, take our orders at McDonalds and teach in our classrooms are fundamentally different, uniquely flawed, dangerously “other” from “normal” people. We are saying “those people” are inherently more prone to violence.
That could not be more untrue. The American Psychiatric Association has reported that the vast majority of people who are violent do not suffer from mental illnesses. In fact, people with mental illnesses are more likely to be the victims of violent crimes than the perpetrators.
So what are some of the actual causes of violence? Studies from the University of Washington show many other factors that may be more indicative of potential future violent behavior than mental illness: these include substance abuse, a history of domestic violence, juvenile detention, divorce or separation in the past year and access to guns.
If we really believe mental illness was the root cause of all violence, our response is underwhelming to say the least. If mental health is a cause of violence, why are we trying to get rid of funding for legislation that would greatly benefit those living with persistent mental illness? If we really believed mental illness has a direct link to interpersonal violence, we would be fighting for more funding, more coverage for treatment and supporting people when they seek out mental health services.
But the opposite is often true: There are many people who actually struggle with persistent mental illness who aren’t given the compassionate care and attention they desperately need. Instead, they are often shunned and dehumanized at every turn.
We must start speaking loudly with our love and compassion for those with mental illness. This includes educating our leaders, keeping them honest and calling them out when they are spreading wrong information. The mythical connection between mental health and violence only creates a false narrative to wrongly explain acts of terror, further stigmatizes millions of people who live with persistent mental illness and induces fear in the general public who don’t know any better.
It’s time to stop using mental health as a scapegoat, while simultaneously ignoring the suffering of millions who live with mental illness every day. Have people with mental illness committed violent acts? Absolutely. And it’s tragic. But do the majority of people with mental illness commit violent acts? No. The exception is rarely the rule. Mental illness, in fact, rarely leads to violence.
If you’re interested in more about this topic, listen to the latest episode of CXMH with Robert Vore and Steve Austin.