Mental Illness and Mass Shootings

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

A while ago, I wrote this piece: Guns and Mental Illness | Nutmegger Daily – Quality writing on many topics. I’d be happy if you read it, of course, but it covers two main points. First, it talks about the ubiquity of mental illness. Virtually everyone, at one point or another, struggles with their mental health. Then, it talks about how wrong it would be to deprive the mentally ill of their legally protected rights. The underlying theme is that talking about mental health in the gun debate is just a red herring.

Now I want to expand on that piece specifically in relation to mass shootings. Last week, I ran across this article by Ari Kruglanski: A quest for significance gone horribly wrong – how mass shooters pervert a universal desire to make a difference in the world ( It’s worth a read, but the part I want to focus on is when the author says, “The idea that committing atrocities and killing innocent victims reflects mental illness has been long discarded by terrorism researchers like me.” I’ve long suspected this to be the case. As someone who struggles with mental illness, it’s clear that most people don’t know what mental illness is. And it’s hard to believe that every Nazi, every member of Al Qaeda, and every member of the Taliban had mental illness as a causal factor for joining. The article was the first time I got confirmation of my suspicions from an academic researcher, though.

After reading the article, I did some digging. Afterall, one source that agrees with me isn’t proof of anything. It’s hard to tell because there’s so much garbage on the internet, but trying to stick to academic sources, I found that only 15-23% of mass shooters were diagnosed with a mental illness. I know there are probably mass shooters with undiagnosed conditions, but that’s a surprisingly low number given that after every mass shooting, people say that focusing on mental health is the way to solve the problem.

The implication the people who talk about mental illness after a tragedy are going for, whether they know it or not, is that anyone who would commit such an act must be crazy. Kruganski’s article explains why that’s simply not true. It should be obvious that mental illness doesn’t cause mass shootings if you know anything about mental illness and think about it for a little bit. Most mental illness doesn’t make people violent. Also, people suffering from a mental health condition are much more likely to be paralyzed by their condition than active and outgoing like a shooter. I’d guess that many mental illnesses, and all of the common ones, work against the patient becoming a mass murderer.

So, why do so many blame mental illness? It’s not ideological; I see it from left, right, and center. I don’t have the money or staff to properly research it, but I suspect there are several interrelated reasons. First, as I mentioned earlier, most people don’t know much about mental disorders. Second, people who have mental health issues are already stigmatized which makes them an easy scapegoat. Third, it’s a way of passing the buck and denying responsibility. There are probably other reasons, but these seem pretty obvious.

We need to stop reflexively using mental illness as an excuse for mass shootings. We can only stop them by focusing on the actual causes. And it hurts a group of people who have done nothing to deserve the pain. We’ve been using this angle for decades and there are more mass shootings now than ever. Let’s drop it and try to find something that solves the problem.

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