Alan I. Leshner
Science 16 Aug 2019:
Vol. 365, Issue 6454, pp. 623
The United States is experiencing a public health epidemic of mass shootings and other forms of gun violence. A convenient response seems to be blaming mental illness; after all, “who in their right mind would do this?” This is utterly wrong. Mental illnesses, certainly severe mental illnesses, are not the major cause of mass shootings. It also is dangerously stigmatizing to people who suffer from these devastating disorders and can subject them to inappropriate restrictions. According to the National Council for Behavioral Health, the best estimates are that individuals with mental illnesses are responsible for less than 4% of all violent crimes in the United States, and less than a third of people who commit mass shootings are diagnosably mentally ill. Moreover, a large majority of individuals with mental illnesses are not at high risk for committing violent acts. Continuing to blame mental illness distracts from finding the real causes of mass shootings and addressing them directly.
Mental illness is, regrettably, a rather loosely defined and loosely used term, and this contributes to the problem. According to the American Psychiatric Association, “Mental illnesses are health conditions involving changes in emotion, thinking or behavior…associated with distress and/or problems functioning in social, work or family activities.” That broad definition can arguably be applied to many life stresses and situations. However, what most people likely mean when they attribute mass shootings to mental illness are what mental health professionals call “serious or severe mental illnesses,” such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression. Other frequently cited causes of mass shootings—hate, employee disgruntlement, being disaffected with society or disappointed with one's life—are not defined clinically as serious mental illnesses themselves. And because they have not been studied systematically, we do not know if these purported other causes really apply, let alone what to do about them if true.
The editorial is here.