It to five percent (Al Jazeera). Instead

It is easy to go online and find databases full of information on mass shootings.  A simple Google search is all you need.  The data can go back to 2013, or all the way back to 1982 (MJ).  One of the easily noticeable data points is the frequency of mass shootings in the United States.  They have become more and more common, with multiple shootings occurring within the span of a single month.  When a mass shooting occurs, everyone is trying to find a source.  Fingers get pointed at the government and gun control, but many more get pointed at mental illness.  But mental illness should not be the scapegoat for violence.  The belief that mentally ill people are dangerous and more likely to commit a mass shooting is false and only increases the pre-existing stigmatization around mental illness. Contrary to popular belief, people with severe mental illness do not contribute much to overall violence and crime.  Some people with a severe mental illness – like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder – do have the possibility of being slightly more violent than the average person, but most mentally ill people are not more dangerous than anyone else (Vox).  And even though there is the possibility of a slightly increased danger, so few people are diagnosed with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.  Only 3.7% of American adults live with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, so violence from these people makes up only a miniscule portion of the overall violence and crime in the United States, only three to five percent (Al Jazeera). Instead of blaming mental illness, we need to look at the other factors that have been found to influence violence.  A 2001 study found that variables associated with violent behavior included homelessness, experiencing or witnessing violence in the surrounding environment, substance abuse, mood disorder, PTSD, poor subjective mental health status, earlier age at onset of psychiatric illness, and psychiatric hospital admission (Swanson).  A 2009 study found that “violence was not predicted by schizophrenia, major depression, or bipolar disorder alone” (Elbogen).  Substance abuse, childhood maltreatment, unsafe environments have all been shown to be a greater influence on violence.  When mental illness is combined with these other factors, then the likelihood of violence will increase.  “If you add any one of those three, it doubles.  If you add any two, it doubles again. If you have all three, your risk triples,” according to Duke University professor Jeffrey Swanson.  Unfortunately, people with a severe mental illness have an increased likelihood of experiencing any of these factors, which causes their likelihood of violence to rise (Vox).  They may have medication, have a harder time being employed or finding housing.  While these people might not have a tendency towards violence in another setting, their situation affects them negatively in a way that leads them or others around them to violence. When it comes to mass shootings, the same is true.  Michael Stone is a forensic psychiatrist at Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons.  He keeps up an extensive database of over 300 killers.  Most of them are shooters of four or more people, which is the generally accepted definition of a mass shooter.  Stone divides mental illness into two categories; the first is people with some form of psychoses that separates them from reality, while the second is made up of people with a personality, antisocial, or sociopathic disorder.  Out of the over 300 killers in the database, only two percent suffered from a severe mental illness(Washington Post).  In an interview with ProPublica, Jeffrey Swanson says, “If we were able to magically cure schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression, that would be wonderful, but overall violence would go down by only about 4 percent.”  While that two percent does have a severe mental illness, that doesn’t mean mass shootings can be blamed on them.  The other 98% are disgruntled, humiliated, jilted, or angry.  They are depressed about their life.  They are paranoid or seeking revenge.  But as Stone puts it, these killers don’t have a “significant impairment in reality testing.”  When they go out, these people know what they are doing.  They’ve made plans and understand what will happen.   They are looking for revenge against something, be it a person or a group of people (Washington Post).  When looking for future violence, it’s more important to look at a person’s history and disposition, and the context of their life.  “The risk factors are the circumstances,” a Connecticut Law Review article said, “not the person and not a diagnosis.” Many people who see mental illness as the problem behind mass shootings suggest improved mental health care as a solution.  But, while improving mental health would benefit many Americans, it would not affect mass shootings or the people who commit them, since the majority of mass shooters aren’t mentally ill, so they wouldn’t be affected by this change.  Of the shooters who are mentally ill, many do not recognize themselves as such.  If they don’t identify as mentally ill, they are not likely to seek any treatment.  According to Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox, mass killers externalize blame.  They blame the world for their own problems, and see themselves as the victims of injustice. As Fox says, “All the disappointments, all the failures, the broken relationships, are because other people treated them wrong. They don’t see themselves as being inadequate and flawed.”  Many forms of therapy involve looking inside yourself.  It’s about looking at yourself and changing the things that are hurting you.  Since these mass killers externalize their blame, they don’t see themselves as at fault.  They are likely to resist therapy that asks for introspection and change (The Atlantic). When it comes to crime rates, people with a severe mental illness are much more likely to be the victim of a crime than to be the perpetrator, 14 times more likely, to be exact. The mentally ill community is considered vulnerable.  Their lifespan is lower and they are likely to exploited.  It’s much harder to get or keep jobs and housing.  They also have a high likelihood of police contact (The Hill).  A study in 2001 researched the risk for people with schizophrenia.  The researchers found that 48% of individuals in the study had police contact during the study.  Twenty-two percent reported that charges were filed against them and 38% reported being the victim of a crime.  They found that people with schizophrenia had higher arrest rates than those without a mental illness, possibly because of the odd behavior that comes as a result of schizophrenia (Brekke).  Their victimization rates are 65 to 130% higher (Metzl). These people didn’t do anything wrong.  Mental illness, especially when it’s severe, is not always controllable.  The police arrest these people because they were acting strangely, but strange doesn’t mean bad. Another source of victimization of mental illness comes from the media.  In articles about severe mental illness and violence, 69% were found to be event focused, with the other 31% being thematic.  Thematic stories were 3 times as likely to mention that mental illness is stigmatized and 10 times more likely to mention that people with mental illness are not violent.  But stigmatization was still only mentioned 12% of the time, and a lack of violence 19% of the time.  It was found that overall, less than 10% of news stories mentioned important facts about severe mental illness.  The media inaccurately presents people with severe mental illness as dangerous.  In the aftermath of a mass shooting, stories are twice as likely to link violence and severe mental illness and 4 times as likely to mention mental health system policy changes (McGinty).  For decades the media has negatively portrayed severe mental illness, further stigmatizing it, even as mental illnesses like depression become more accepted.  A Washington Post survey found that 63% of Americans blame mass shootings on the mental health system failing.  Readers of these types of articles have have shown a greater perception of danger and a greater desire for distance from people with severe mental illness (Washington Post).  It doesn’t help that speeches and interviews produce comments that call killers deranged and insane (Metzl).  Media and the government both stigmatize severe mental illness, leading to that belief being spread across the country. Though improving the mental health system in the United States would benefit many, changing gun laws would be more effective when it comes to curtailing mass shootings.  Part of the problem is that there are just so many guns in the United States.  The US is actually similar to most countries in relation to crime.  In general, crime rates aren’t more common here than in most countries, except for homicide, where the US is 3 times more likely to have an incident than other countries.  Swanson gives this example: “Imagine three immature, impulsive, intoxicated young men who come out of a pub in the UK in the middle of the night and get into an argument. There, somebody gets a black eye and a bloody nose. In one of our big cities, it’s statistically more likely someone has a firearm, so you’re likelier to get a dead body.”  The problem is access.  Background checks, forms, or even identification are not always required in legal firearm purchases. Only nineteen states require a background check, license, or permit (Al Jazeera).  Another option would be seizing guns from those considered dangerous, mostly tipped off by those close to them.  Connecticut has found it successful.  Two thousand guns were taken in their first decade, and 80% were not mentally ill (Washington Post).  And the people affected by these laws own about seven firearms each.  Gun control has found success in parts of the United States and in other countries.  It is what should be considered as a solution when mass shootings occur. When mass shootings occur, it is a terrible event that scares many people.  They want to blame something.  But mental illness is not the correct scapegoat.  Blaming mental illness will only continue to stigmatize it, causing people to see it as dangerous, increasing stigmatization, and on and on.  People with severe mental illness are not more dangerous.  Severe mental illness does not cause violence.  Drawing connections between the two is dangerous to people with mental illness and to other people’s perception of them, and it needs to stop.


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