With each mass shooting or other large-scale violent event like the recent string of bombings in Austin, the venue, the names and the number of dead change, but the explanation is the same. The killer is crazy. He had mental illness.
It has become the automatic response by many. But despite the fact that mental illness seems like a logical, convenient, useful explanation for mass murder, it is largely fiction.
So the reasoning goes, Mark Conditt, the Austin bomber who killed two in March of this year; Christopher Harper-Mercer, the shooter at Umpqua Community College in Oregon who killed nine in 2015; and Stephen Paddock, the Las Vegas shooter who killed 58 in 2017 all must have been deranged and crazy because what they did is deranged and crazy, including killing themselves. Terms like “sick individual,” “crazed maniac,” or “psychopath” are routinely used to describe those who perpetrate horrific mass killings.
Mental illness is the catchall explanation for the inexplicable. It helps us make sense of things we can’t comprehend.
Labeling mass killers mentally ill is also used to separate “them” from us, mass killers from the law-abiding public. Mental illness provides a convenient, appealing dividing line.
Moreover, the mental illness explanation for violence, and especially horrific events such as mass shootings, is routinely reinforced by the National Rifle Association, members of Congress and state officials. It is a useful explanation for politicians because it deflects attention from where they are unwilling to go — the gun issue.
Just because some mass murderers have had a mental health problem does not mean mental illness is the explanation or cause for their behavior or that of others. As researchers in mental health fields, we know that we do not know what role, if any, a mental health problem evident among some mass murderers may have played in their behavior.
A history of mental illness does not mean all mass murderers have mental illness. That’s like saying because most mass murderers are white and male, being white or male is the reason they engaged in such behavior.
In reality, research shows that the link between mental illness and violence is quite weak. The American Psychiatric Association and a variety of other professional organizations and academic researchers show conclusively that mentally ill individuals are no more likely to engage in violent acts than nonmentally ill individuals.
Mental illness is not a monolithic condition. In fact, it includes 300 disorders. In addition to the wide variety of disorders, there is substantial variation in their severity. Simply attributing a violent act to mental illness grossly oversimplifies a very complex, differentiated set of conditions that have highly variable behavioral manifestations.
Making attributions that mass shootings are a result of mental illness may play well for some politicians, but playing fast and loose with something they know little about is inappropriate and unacceptable. If we assume for the moment they are right, that the cause of mass violence is mental illness, there is little evidence politicians are doing anything to curb the problem, such as expanding public mental health treatment.
Blaming mass violence on mental illness does tremendous harm to the 44 million mentally ill adults in the United States who in any given year suffer from a mental illness, and the 10 million adults who have a serious mental illness such as major depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Among other things, deceptively linking mental illness and violence perpetuates the stigma associated with mental illness.
Mass killings are a substantial problem in the U.S. When we irresponsibly conclude that mental illness is the cause of mass shootings, we fail to consider the actual causes. It is time we get serious about finding out why and how they occur and what can be done to effectively reduce the likelihood of them happening. The best way to do that, it seems to us, is to get politics out of the way.
William R. Kelly is a professor of sociology at The University of Texas at Austin and the author of four books on criminal justice reform.
William Streusand is a psychiatrist in private practice in Austin and a co-author with Kelly on criminal justice reform.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Dallas Morning News, San Antonio Express News, Amarillo Globe News, and Psychology Today.
To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here.
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