I wrote about the need to talk about guns in the wake of the Sandy Hook mass shooting. A lot of people think we need to talk about mental illness. I agree, but I’m not sure we should be talking about mental illness in the context of mass shootings.
The vast majority mentally ill people are not violent. They’re our friends and family members, our neighbors and our coworkers. They’re you and me. Many of us will not go through life without battling depression at some point. People often struggle in silence because of the stigma associated with battling a psychological disorder.
The media does a pretty poor job portraying mental illness. A disturbed person doesn’t typically make the news until something bad happens. They’re barricaded in a home with a gun threatening suicide. They’ve stabbed their mother to death. They’ve fondled little girls’ feet in libraries.
We assume mass murderers are mentally ill, but that may not always be the case. The Tuscon shooter has schizophrenia. The Aurora shooter’s lawyers say he has a mental illness. But some mass murderers are not mentally ill – they’re just seeking revenge. Experts simply do not know enough about the people who commit mass shootings. One researcher found no correlation between rates of mental illness and gun deaths. Experts have repeatedly said it’s hard to predict these slaughters in advance.
Here’s what we do know: Most people who are violent are not mentally ill. Only a small percentage of violence can be attributed to people with mental illness. People with severe psychiatric disorders are more likely to be victims than perpetrators.
We absolutely need to talk about identifying and supporting people with mental illness. But it may not be the discussion you wanted.