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Gun Violence and Mental Illness: Understanding Links and Misconceptions

drawing of person holding a gun with "help" flag coming out of it

Verywell / Laura Porter

Key Takeaways

  • After mass shootings, people often suggest links between gun violence and mental illness.
  • While there might be a link between mental illness and a slightly increased risk of violence, the risk is minute.
  • Linking gun violence and mental illness can add to the stigma around mental illness, making it more difficult for people to reach out for help.

Whenever there’s a high-profile mass shooting, we'll often see politicians, people in the media, and people in our own lives making links between gun violence and mental illness.

This was the case earlier this month when a shooter killed ten people at a supermarket in Buffalo. And again, ten days later, after the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, in which a shooter killed 19 students and two teachers. 

Eighteen-year-old Payton S. Gendron, accused of carrying out the Buffalo shooting, had been referred to a hospital for a mental health evaluation and counseling after telling a teacher that he “wanted to murder and commit suicide” in 2021. However, they released him after only a day and a half.

This information has once again ignited the conversation surrounding gun violence and mental illnesses like depression. As a result, there are a lot of misconceptions and falsehoods being spread.

It might be tempting to blame gun violence on mental illness. It’s a convenient scapegoat at a time when gun violence and mass shootings are real concerns. 

However, it doesn’t solve the problem, and can actually be harmful to those who do live with serious mental health conditions, in particular by adding to the stigma and potentially discouraging people from speaking up and getting help.

What Do the Statistics Suggest?

According to the Gun Violence Archive, there have been over 200 mass shootings in the US in 2022, though not all of these involved fatalities, while in 2020 over 45,000 people died from gun-related injuries, with over half of these being suicides. 

It may be surprising, but it was found in 2016 that mass shootings by people with serious mental illness represent less than 1% of all gun-related homicides. However, the overall contribution of people with serious mental illness to violent crimes was just 3%.

Most people with a mental illness aren’t violent. There is evidence to suggest associations between mental illness and an increased risk of violence—it's often asserted that mental health checks should be required before someone can buy a gun—but the vast majority of people with a mental illness are not violent.

Mark Vahrmeyer, AdvDipIntPsy MA

Due to how mental illness has and continues to be viewed and stigmatized, people with mental health problems, or mental illness, can feel shame about their condition making it difficult for them to access help.

— Mark Vahrmeyer, AdvDipIntPsy MA

Misconceptions may arise because of high-profile cases in which the perpetrator shoots others before then turning the gun on themselves, such as the Columbine High School massacre, the Virginia Tech shooting, and the 2017 Las Vegas shooting. This might be because we tend to associate suicide, too, with mental illness.

It’s true that in many cases, mass murderers don’t intend to survive after the attack they carry out, be that as a result of suicide or being killed by law enforcement officials. However, this doesn’t necessarily indicate a mental illness. 

“The stigmatization of mental health and mental illness is nothing new and can be traced back through the centuries and across cultures,” explains Mark Vahrmeyer, AdvDipIntPsy MA, UKCP-registered integrative psychologist. “People with mental illness have at varying times been seen as weak, possessed by the devil or evil spirits and, often in conjunction with the latter, considered dangerous and violent."

“Despite much improvement in the treatment of mental illness and an increasingly open dialogue about the effects of mental illness from sufferers and professionals, the evidence shows that increasing numbers of the general public fear violence from those who are mentally ill," says Vahrmeyer.

Why Do We Make These Links?

It’s easier to look for a scapegoat, be it mental illness, video games or movies, or even heavy metal music, as it gives us something—or someone—to blame, almost giving us the feeling of being back in control in some way. 

We Want Answers After a Tragedy

“It is human to want answers and human to seek a simple answer to what is actually a complex question: the complex answer holds us collectively responsible for the society in which we all live and co-create; the simple answer claiming the reason is due to mental illness, exonerates us from introspection and enables us to put distance between the actions of the latest gunman—the madman—and ourselves," says Vahrmeyer.

"It is a powerful psychological defense that allows us to maintain our own certainty about who we are and the society we live in.”

There have been mass shootings in which serious mental illness has played a role, like the 2011 Tuscon shooting—the perpetrator Jared Lee Loughner was diagnosed with schizophrenia after his arrest—but this by no means suggests a more concrete link between mental illness and gun violence. 

Stigma Persists

Zeroing in on the connection to psychological issues just adds to the stigma surrounding mental health, and makes people less likely to reach out for help, leading to worse public health outcomes.

Whereas some mental health conditions are perhaps becoming more accepted, like depression and anxiety, there’s still a stronger stigma around others like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. In the aftermath of a mass shooting, as people make links between mental illness and gun violence, the result can be people believing that those with serious mental illnesses are dangerous.

“Due to how mental illness has and continues to be viewed and stigmatized, people with mental health problems, or mental illness, can feel shame about their condition making it difficult for them to access help.  This can, in turn, affect all other parts of their lives and bring on a downward spiral whereby they no longer feel a part of society and exist on the fringes," says Vahrmeyer.

Vahrmeyer continues, "They can end up being seen and used as scapegoats by politicians and the media, with further marginalization.  The effects on the individual are as huge as are they on society, and even on the public purse, just not on gun violence.”

Ultimately, if laws intended to reduce gun violence focused on people with mental health conditions, it would be a waste of resources as there are no links between mental illness and gun violence. Guns are potentially lethal in anyone's hands, and more extensive education and training should be required before operating one.

Other Key Points For Consideration

Other factors common among mass murderers include feelings of social alienation, feelings of anger and revenge, and advance planning before carrying out the act.

While feelings of anger, for example, might be a symptom of some mental illnesses, it doesn’t mean that all mass shooters will have a mental illness. Or, even if a mass shooter did have a mental illness, it’s unlikely to have been that alone that caused them to carry out the act.

As mentioned above, over half of gun-related deaths are suicides. This is something that might contribute to associations between mental illness and gun violence. However, it’s important to differentiate between violence against others and suicide here—dying by suicide and killing other people are very different, and dying by suicide does not suggest that the individual would have been violent towards others. 

So, why do we often associate gun violence with mental illness in our minds? In part, because it’s a convenient scapegoat, and in part, because we remember past events in which mental illness was a factor. We can look at news coverage of acts of violence too, as these can influence the way in which we view people with mental illnesses.

Ultimately, however, by linking gun violence and mental illness we risk creating more fear, and making it more difficult for people who may be struggling with their mental health to reach out.

What This Means For You

Gun violence is something that can be upsetting to hear about, and traumatic to experience, but it is important to remember that anyone can be violent, regardless of their mental health. More research is needed to help understand why people might turn to violence, and more support is needed for those struggling with their mental health.

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5 Sources
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