The flawed psychology of blaming mental illness for mass shootings

John Locher/AP/Shutterstock
Originally Published: 

In his address to the nation concerning back-to-back mass shootings, President Donald Trump said that it's "mental illness and hatred that pulls the trigger, not the gun." This ham-fisted comment isn’t just untrue, it is a destructive idea to accept. Attributing mass shootings to mental illness is a histrionic diversionary tactic that distracts us from seeing and addressing the more evidence-based causes of events like the massacres in Dayton and El Paso.

“Unfortunately we have the president and other people falling back on the same stereotypes,” says Jonathan Metzl, psychiatrist and director of the Center for Medicine, Health, and Society at Vanderbilt University. “Blaming mental illness, the media, and video games creates the same old diversionary narratives that get us fighting with each other and move us further away from a real solution. The factors that get lost when we talk about mental illness are everything from access to firearms and gun laws to misogyny and racism.”

Metzl says there are several things to keep in mind when considering the motive behind a mass shooting. “Number one, there is no statistical link between mental illness and mass shooting. The president suggesting that mental illness pulled the trigger is really just playing into stereotypes that people with mental illness are ticking time bombs.” It’s a degrading stereotype, given that millions of people in the US manage depression, anxiety, OCD, and schizophrenia without causing bodily harm to others.

So what role, if any, does mental illness play in some of these massacres? Metzl says that even when it’s a factor, it’s often on a list of thirty other things that lead to a crime such as a mass shooting. “It’s not like because you have schizophrenia, therefore you go shoot somebody,” he adds. “Even if there is mental illness — even if the shooter has been diagnosed — the idea that mental illness is what caused them to commit the crime is patently false.” Metzl’s own 2015 study about the possible connection between mental illness and mass shootings shows that they are “are less causal and more complex than current US public opinion and legislative action allow" (his research on the topic has been ongoing).

If mental illness is the cause of mass shootings, then the logic should be that because the US seems to lead the world in mass shootings, it would also lead the world in mental illness. But that’s not the case. “The rates of mental illness are roughly the same around the world, yet other countries are not experiencing these traumatic events as often as we face them,” said Rosie Phillips Davis, president of the American Psychological Association President, in a statement about the shootings. “If we want to address the gun violence that is tearing our country apart, we must keep our focus on finding evidence-based solutions. Routinely blaming mass shootings on mental illness is unfounded and stigmatizing.”

Dzmitry Malyeuski / Shutterstock

Blaming people with mental illness for mass shootings turns them into bogeymen who are being pitchforked for the sake of our handy narratives. “People with mental illness are far more likely to be the victims of violent crimes, not the perpetrators, so that narrative is an inversion of reality,” Metzl says. Narratives like those suggested by the president make us fearful of people who need care and less aware of what we should actually be afraid of.

And then during our collective grief, politicians sometimes hand us quick answers that are in line with what we have already been taught to fear. “Think about how quickly Trump made the diagnosis. He says it was mental illness, but it was less than 12 hours after the shooting,” Metzl points out. “At that point, we knew nothing whatsoever about the psychological profilings of the shooter. We didn’t even know if there was a diagnosis.” This quick-trigger narrative leaves us feeling helpless in the face of an “insane” monster, when, in fact, the monsters are political, legal, and structural and they can only be defeated through education and policy reform.

Placing the blame on a person dealing with mental illness forces the public to lean on well-worn cultural myths that have no basis in reality. But as comfortable and familiar as these stories are, they perpetuate the idea that we are powerless. If any of the one in five Americans with mental illness could be a mass murderer, the problem is insurmountable. But it’s not. Placing our attention on things we feel like we cannot control diverts our attention from changing things we can control, but which requires citizen engagement and action.

“When we attribute violence to big amorphous things like mental illness or video games, not only is it statistically untrue, it also distracts us from interventions that might actually matter,” says Metzl. “It’s important to fight back against the helplessness that those kinds of narratives tacitly convey.” Doing that will requires us to turn our attention away from the undefeatable faux-monster of mental illness and demand policy change instead of accepting neat narratives. There are concrete, actionable things we can do to prevent mass shootings.

“It’s important to keep in mind is that there are things being done,” Metzl emphasized. “There are things we can do as a society. We can dramatically strengthen the background check system by updating how data is added to it, we can dramatically close gun show loopholes and other kinds of loopholes that make it too easy for people to get guns, we can bring back the assault weapons bans, we can really really enforce red flag laws. We can do really practical things like put more money into gun research and we can take down internet hate sites like 8chan.”

“Now really is the moment,” Metzl says. “There is a tremendous need in this country right now for responses to these horrific events that will matter.” Now is the time to turn our attention toward policies, and not pop psychology, to prevent further tragedy. It is cognitive dissonance, and not mental illness, that pulled the trigger.