America has experienced a series of mass shootings in recent years. After almost every tragedy, commentators and politicians talk about the potential link between mental illness and gun violence.
It’s certainly the case that some people implicated in mass shootings suffered from mental illness. James Holmes, the shooter who killed 12 people at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado in 2012, sought psychiatric help before the shooting. Court-appointed psychiatrists testified he was mentally ill. However, his attempt to use the insanity defense proved unsuccessful and he was sentenced to life imprisonment for murder. The psychiatrists told the court he was mentally ill but not insane.
Although some mass killers suffered from psychological problems, the link between mental illness and gun violence is far from automatic.
An article in The Trace points out it’s misguided to pin the blame for violence on mental health problems.
Yu Lu, a postdoctoral research fellow in behavioral health and research at the University of Texas Medical Branch, told the publication numerous news reports link mental illness and gun violence. She said:
“If you look at data, if you look at actual research, there’s minimal evidence supporting this claim.”
Lu’s study Preventive Medicine considered the connection between mental health issues and gun-related behaviors.
She concluded most mental health issues — including depression, anxiety, stress, PTSD, and issues like borderline personality disorder, bear little association with gun violence.
The correlation between shootings and access to guns was more obvious. People with access to guns were 18 times more likely to have threatened someone with a firearm than those who didn’t have access to a firearm.
Lu and a co-researcher considered data from 663 young adults recruited from seven Texas high schools. The team caught up with them every year for eight years from 2010.
Other research supports Lu’s conclusions. A database that looked at the characteristics of mass shooters found a “tenuous connection” between mental illness and gun violence. Under 15 percent of mass shooters were psychotic.
The Treatment Advocacy Center stated about 23 percent of mass shooters demonstrated mental health problems.
The American Mental Health Counselors Association also addressed potential links between mental illness and gun crime. It concluded:
“Most people who suffer serious mental illnesses are never violent. Certain people with serious mental illness do face an elevated risk of violence during “certain high-risk periods.”
These can include an initial episode of psychosis and inpatient psychiatric hospitalization.
The association said people who suffer serious mental illness are rarely aggressive. Just 3 to 5 percent of all violence, including gun violence, is linked to mental illness.
The reality is people with serious mental illness are far more likely to become victims of violence than to carry it out. This includes in jails and prisons where other inmates target them.
The violent crime victimization rate is 12 times higher among people with serious mental illness than among the overall U.S. population.
As an attorney who helps people with mental illnesses after they are charged with crimes, I frequently have to address the misconception that mental illness and gun violence are automatically linked. Please call me at (602) 340-1999 about mental health defenses if you or a family member has been charged with a crime.