Public opinion surveys suggest that many people think mental illness and violence go hand in hand.
A 2006 national survey found, for example, that 60% of Americans thought that people with schizophrenia were likely to act violently toward someone else, while 32% thought that people with major depression were likely to do so.
Reinforcing the perception that mental illness and violent crimes are connected was the disclosure last week that the man who killed 26 people and injured 20 on November 5 in a Sutherland Springs, Texas church — the deadliest mass shooting in modern Texas history — had spent time in, and escaped, a mental health facility.
President Trump’s reaction to the massacre, offered at a news conference in South Korea, reflected the popular perception. “This isn’t a guns situation,” he averred, rightly expecting renewed calls for tighter gun control. “This is a mental-health issue at the highest level, and it’s very, very sad.”
The assumption that there is a causal connection between mental illness and violent acts is made across the political spectrum. National Rifle Association President Wayne LaPierre has called for a “national registry” of persons with mental illness. And, after the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting, New York Governor Cuomo declared to reporters, “People who have mental health issues should not have guns.”
The facts, however, show that mental illness is not at all a useful predictor of violence.
A subset of people with psychiatric disorders — like a subset of people without them — do commit assaults and violent crimes. But in most such cases, substance abuse and other factors complicate any cause-and-effect judgment. One thing, though, is clear and significant: most individuals with common psychiatric disorders are simply not violent.
Many mental illnesses, in fact, produce an opposite effect. Schizophrenia, for instance, is frequently marked by what are called “negative symptoms,” like apathy and social withdrawal. Depression often produces low mood and low energy. People suffering from such disorders generally quietly withdraw from society, rather than lash out at it.
And it pays to keep in mind that, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, as many as one in five American adults suffers from some sort of mental illness. Those rates are relatively the same as in other countries. That fact, combined with the fact that Americans are 10 times more likely to be killed by a gun than residents of other developed countries, itself belies the mental illness-violence assumption.
To be sure, laws to prevent people with emotional illnesses from purchasing firearms are not unreasonable, if only because the vast majority of gun deaths in the U.S. are suicides. Stricter gun laws for people with a history of mental health issues could save many from tragic deaths at their own hands.
As it happens, in 2016, then-President Obama signed a bill designed to keep guns out of the hands of mentally ill people. Earlier this year, though, it was repealed by President Trump. It may be worth his reconsideration.
The wrongful perception that mental disorders lead to violence is not without its own victims. It only adds to the unfair stigma borne by people who, through no fault of their own, suffer emotional challenges.
When such sufferers are perceived as dangerous by others, it results in fear and increased social distance, which is not only inherently unfair but has the potential to worsen the wellbeing of the mentally ill. Feeling isolated, even in healthy people, is associated with poor mental and physical health outcomes. In those afflicted with emotional illnesses to begin with, it can worsen their conditions, even to the point of causing early mortality; loneliness can literally be lethal.
Shunning, even subtly, the mentally ill, moreover, can discourage others from seeking treatment that could alleviate their own pain and suffering.
Referring to people with mental challenges as “crazy” or “weird” is simply wrong, and provides our children a poor example. Insinuating that the mentally ill are dangerous, all the more so. When a person commits a heinous crime, it serves no constructive purpose, and honors no truths, to attribute it to anything but the choices of some people to do evil things. Mental illness may sometimes be a factor in the crime. But very rarely is it its sole cause.
That is something very important to keep in mind when we hear of horrific acts like the recent one in Texas, not only for the sake of all the innocent souls suffering from mental maladies, but for our own sakes too.