The American Psychological Association speaks out why it’s inaccurate to blame mass shootings on mental illness
As our nation reels in the wake of back-to-back mass shootings, we are also hearing the same tired arguments about the cause of these entirely preventable tragedies. The actual cause, of course, is guns — the absolutely nauseatingly easy availability of guns which has led us to more mass shootings in 2019 than there have been days in 2019 so far. The thing many uninformed people (including President Trump, naturally) try to blame? Mental illness. That’s inaccurate as can be, and luckily, the actual professionals in this matter have spoken out loud and clear about how totally wrong it is to say that mental illness is behind America’s mass shooting epidemic.
The American Psychological Association released a statement yesterday responding to the assertion that mental illness, not guns, racism, and white supremacy is the reason we have daily mass shootings in this country. “As our nation tries to process the unthinkable yet again, it is clearer than ever that we are facing a public health crisis of gun violence fueled by racism, bigotry and hatred,” they write. “The combination of easy access to assault weapons and hateful rhetoric is toxic. Psychological science has demonstrated that social contagion — the spread of thoughts, emotions and behaviors from person to person and among larger groups — is real, and may well be a factor, at least in the El Paso shooting.”
The American Psychiatric Association released a similar statement saying, in part, “the overwhelming majority of people with mental illness are not violent and far more likely to be victims of violent crime than perpetrators of violence.”
The El Paso shooter reportedly wrote a manifesto before he opened fire at a Walmart store, ending 22 lives and injuring dozens of others. In it, he said his murderous rampage was “… a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.” He wrote of white people being “replaced” by foreigners. The manifesto said to be written by the same man who killed and injured a total of nearly 50 people in a matter of minutes suggested that “if we can get rid of enough people, then our way of life can be more sustainable.”
That’s not mental illness. That’s racism, white supremacy, and toxic masculinity.
“That shooting is being investigated as a hate crime, as it should be,” the APA says. “Psychological science has demonstrated the damage that racism can inflict on its targets. Racism has been shown to have negative cognitive and behavioral effects on both children and adults and to increase anxiety, depression, self-defeating thoughts and avoidance behaviors.”
However, they’re crystal clear in stating that mass shootings are not caused by mental illness.
“Routinely blaming mass shootings on mental illness is unfounded and stigmatizing. Research has shown that only a very small percentage of violent acts are committed by people who are diagnosed with, or in treatment for, mental illness,” they write. “The rates of mental illness are roughly the same around the world, yet other countries are not experiencing these traumatic events as often as we face them. One critical factor is access to, and the lethality of, the weapons that are being used in these crimes. Adding racism, intolerance and bigotry to the mix is a recipe for disaster.”
Jeffrey Swanson, a professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University School of Medicine explains to The Washington Post that it’s not accurate to say that mental illness is behind most mass shootings. “It’s tempting to try to find one simple solution and point the finger at that,” he said. “The fact that somebody would go out and massacre a bunch of strangers, that’s not the act of a healthy mind, but that doesn’t mean they have a mental illness.”
In a 2018 report on 63 active shooter assailants, the FBI found that just a quarter of them had been diagnosed with a mental illness. Out of that 25 percent, only three of the assailants had been diagnosed with a psychotic disorder.
Angela Kimball, head of the National Alliance on Mental illness, tells The Washington Post exactly why it’s incredibly dangerous to perpetuate the myth that mental illness is an underlying cause of mass shootings. “When you blame people with mental illness for things like mass shootings, it’s not just untrue,” she says. “It keeps people from seeking help even when they need it. It spreads unjustified fears about the mentally ill and worsens the stigma around it.”
The APA ends their statement with a call to action that speaks to the actual problems — racism and the easy availability of guns.
“If we want to address the gun violence that is tearing our country apart, we must keep our focus on finding evidence-based solutions. This includes restricting access to guns for people who are at risk for violence and working with psychologists and other experts to find solutions to the intolerance that is infecting our nation and the public dialogue.”