Mass Shootings and Mental Illness: What’s Right & Wrong and What We Can Do

Written by: Jasper Gates, LPC-Intern          

As I read the news after my work yesterday, I came into shock and horror as another mass shooting was reported yet again. The Parkland school shooting is amongst the top ten worst mass shootings committed in American history. What mental professionals such as myself know about mental illness and mass shootings are very different than what the media, our society, and culture depicts about these individuals who commit these horrible tragedies. Often times, you may here the buzz words such as serious mental illness, or “psychos” with guns commit these crimes. Perhaps you’ve even heard video games, or the violent media as the cause of these mass shootings. I am here to tell you that based upon research and what various experts have seen this is not the case.

When we promote the stigma that those with serious mental illnesses are the cause of mass shootings, we are doing more harm for the treatment of mental health than good. When less than 1% of all murders by mass shootings yearly are done by those with a serious mental illness (Knoll and Annas 2015), we end up targeting the wrong type of population and miss out on the important information that could save lives. An important idea to note is that those with serious mental illnesses cause less than 3% of all violence (Fazel and Gann 2006). If it is not individuals with serious mental illnesses, then it must be something else that causes individuals to commit these heinous acts.

There are a many factors that cause these individuals to shoot so many people. Low self-esteem, isolation, depression, social rejection, feelings of persecution and paranoia are amongst some of the signs that can bring these individuals to do shoot so many innocents (Knoll 2012; Modzeleski et al. 2008; Mullen 2004; O’Toole 2000). Case after case, these individuals feel rejected and dejected by their peers, loved ones, and others; due to these factors, we see these mass shooters come to the conclusion that it is not their fault and so they must commit mass murder often followed by suicide (Marzuk et. Al, 1992; Knoll, 2012). This concept is known as homicide-suicide. These individuals seek out to kill as many people as they can in an act of defiance before killing themselves in the final act. It’s important to note these factors so that we can identify if someone is thinking of doing such a terrible crime.

I believe that we can help prevent these mass shootings from occurring by noticing the signs these individuals may display. Often times, these individuals will discuss plans they have to potential third parties such as family members, online communities, or friends (Orange 2011). It is important for family members or other social contacts to warn that such behaviors are likely to happen. If you see someone who is seems likely to feel angry towards the world and discuss such plans, get them some help and warn others. Just as we would with any individual who is harmful towards themselves or others, potential mass shooters are in the same place. If we learn to connect with someone who is lonely or hurt and we give them a little bit of hope and empathy, we not only may be saving them but we could be saving many more lives. I say that empathy, a little bit of social connection, and mutual understanding can go a long way for anyone in life not just people who are angry and lonely. This is something we can practice as a whole and even change the world.

For more Information:

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Knoll JL IV: Violence risk assessment for mental health professionals, in Wiley Encyclo- pedia 

    of Forensic Science. Edited by Jamieson A, Moenssens A. Chichester, UK, Wiley,

2009, pp 2597–2602

Knoll, J. & Annas, G. 2015. Mass Shootings and Mental Illness.

Marzuk PM, Tardiff K, Hirsch CS: The epidemiology of murder-suicide. JAMA 267(23): 3179–

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Mullen PE: The autogenic (self-generated) massacre. Behav Sci Law 22(3):311–323, 2004

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Orange R: Anders Behring Breivik’s sister warned mother about his behaviour two years ago.

Daily Telegraph, December 4, 2011. Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/

news/worldnews/europe/norway/8934136/Anders-Behring-Breiviks-sister-warned-

mother-about-his-behaviour-two-years-ago.html. Accessed February 14,2018

O’Toole ME: The School Shooter: A Threat Assessment Perspective. Quantico, VA, National

            Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2000