OPINION

Opinion: Mental illness a poor predictor of mass shootings

Linda Snow-Griffin
Opinion contributor
According to research by the Violence Project, mental illness was a primary contributing factor for violence in only 15.8% of mass shootings. While the percentage seems high, consider that 84% of the shootings are related to other more prominent reasons.

While I appreciate the most current media responses to mass shootings, in the recent past, news coverage has often associated violence with mental illness out of proportion to the actual rate in the United States. In an analysis of 400 news stories claiming mental illness to be the reason for mass violence, most  were on the front page. This kind of news coverage can be influential in creating and perpetuating public fear of  those diagnosed with mental illness. 

In contrast to public opinion, research findings indicate that people with mental illness have a risk factor of being violent themselves on par with the general population. While Jeffrey Swanson, a professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University School of Medicine and well-known researcher in the field of mental illness and gun violence, found low rates of gun violence associated with all mental illness, psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder have the lowest rates. In reality, mental illness is a poor predictor of violence.

In his article, "Thinking Differently about Mental Illness, Violence Risk, and Gun Rights," Swanson states that violence in the U.S. would only be reduced by 4% if in the future we could cure all mental illness. While there are certainly some people with serious mental illness who become violent, they make up a small percentage. According to research by the Violence Project, mental illness was a primary contributing factor for violence in only 15.8% of mass shootings. While the percentage seems high, consider that 84% of the shootings are related to other more prominent reasons.

Jillian Peterson, a psychologist, and James Densley, a sociologist, of the Violence Project continue to search for motivations and patterns for violence. Factors that outweigh possible mental illness motivations include childhood trauma, crises and personal grievances, an inspiration or validation for their belief such as conspiracy theories, racism, or copy-catting, and access to guns.

The majority of those with serious mental illness, however, are nonviolent people who never cause problems of this sort. In fact, violence to others is not a characteristic of most people with serious mental illness. According to an article published in the American Journal of Public Health, most individuals with severe mental illness, particularly schizophrenia, are more at risk of harming themselves than others, and they are more often the victims of crime or abuse because of their social vulnerability. They are usually passive and vulnerable, not violent and dangerous and any potential for violence usually lessens over time.

These individuals are 65-130% more likely to be victims of violence than other members of the general population. Nevertheless, the stigma still exists. Perpetuating stigma contributes to misunderstanding and fear of those needing community support. It creates barriers for people with mental illness to seek treatment, and it prevents us from discovering more statistically relevant answers to the gun violence that we are presently experiencing.

Linda Snow-Griffin is a retired psychologist in the Cincinnati area. She is author of a book, "Hope and Learning: Our Journey with Schizophrenia," which is scheduled to be released in September.

Linda Snow-Griffin