Linking mental health and gun violence is flawed, experts say


Americans experienced the two worst domestic mass shootings of civilians in its history within a period of 14 months, fueling a societal stereotype over guns and mental health that experts say has many flaws.

In June 2016 at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, a man claiming to be associated with ISIS killed 50 people — including himself — and injured 53.

This past October, a gunman with no apparent motive opened fire on a crowd of people attending the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival in Las Vegas, killing 58 people and injuring more than 500.

A 2013 FBI study found that the number of active shooter incidents increased significantly over a 14-year period. From 2000 to 2006, the average annual number of incidents was 6.4. From 2007 to 2013, the number increased to 16.4 incidents per year.

The FBI study did not research motives behind shootings, but many people, including President Donald Trump, have drawn the conclusion that the problem lies with mental health.

Trump made his comments following the shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, which left 26 dead.

“I think that mental health is your problem here,” Trump said, “This was a very — based on preliminary reports — a very deranged individual.”

Trump added that he doesn’t think the problem lies with guns and declared it was “a little bit soon” to discuss the issue of guns.

“This is a mental health problem at the highest level,” Trump said.

Extensive research by Mother Jones found that in 95 mass shootings from 1982 to 2017, more than half of the shooters had either been diagnosed with mental illness or had family and coworkers encourage them to seek a mental health professional.

Despite the data, Pueblo, Colorado forensic psychiatrist Scott Walmer said comments like Trump’s are out of line and follow a problematic trend he sees in the media: suggesting the shooter had or may have had a mental illness.

“As best as I can tell, many of these media reports are speculative,” Walmer said. “Speculation of this sort underscores a link in the public view between mental illness and violence with little empirical basis.”

According to Walmer, studies show only 3 to 5 percent of violent acts “are attributable to individuals suffering from serious mental illness.” He said studies also suggest that people with mental illness are more often victims of violence than people without any sort of disability.

While Walmer did admit to some link between mental illness and violence, he specified that these links exist only when mental illness is combined with another issue, such as substance use.

“Substance use greatly increases the risk of violent behavior compared to non-users,” Walmer said. “The combination of substance use and mental illness is synergistic for increased risk of violent behavior.”

Utah Crisis Intervention Team Executive Director Ron Bruno isn’t sure whether mental illness and gun violence are connected.

“There have been individuals, of course, that we are aware of that have had severe and persistent mental illness that is untreated that have committed some very violent crimes while in a state of psychosis or altered mental state,” Bruno said. “But to say that mental illness creates gun violence, or that there is a tight combination there — I can’t really necessarily say one way or another.”

Bruno said when it comes to gun violence, it’s important to consider opportunity, like whether or not a person with mental illness had access to a firearm. According to Bruno, unless a person with a mental illness has been adjudicated by a court, there is no legal restriction on obtaining a firearm.

“The majority of people that do have mental disorders can very rightfully (obtain a firearm),” Bruno said.

Considering that one in five adults in America experience mental illness in any given year at any given time, it is unrealistic to think restricting people with mental illness from obtaining firearms is a solution. Walmer and Bruno both advocate for better education about mental illness, as well as better access to mental health services.

“By engaging in treatment, many individuals who have concerning symptoms of mental illness that converge into a state of dangerousness may be shifted into a potentially less dangerous state,” Walmer said.

Bruno is a firm advocate for getting people the help and treatment they need. In his opinion, when it comes to preventing crime, better access to mental health treatment is key.

“I think that (access to mental health care) absolutely can reduce the crimes committed by individuals who have untreated mental health issues,” Bruno said, “if it was very simple and easy access to mental health services, I think that there would be a percentage of (people with mental illness) that would get assistance, before they hit that critical end.”

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