The Myth Of Mental Illness And Gun Violence

BY Herschel Smith
9 years, 11 months ago


Random gun violence is a terrifying fact of American life, because of both the violence and the randomness. Terror bred by violence does not really require comment; they are twinned. But terror bred by randomness does, especially when it leads people to accept as true a reasonable story that is false, when a myth functions as an explanation. And that is what is happening with the way we talk about mental illness and random gun violence. Thankfully, a just published report in the Annals of Epidemiology pulls together the facts we need to consider if we really want to adopt evidence-based policies to reduce random gun violence.

The article, “Mental illness and reduction of gun violence and suicide: bringing epidemiologic research to policy,” is a comprehensive, critical survey of the available data (and it is surprisingly accessible and  well-written for an academic treatise). It concludes that “most violent behavior is due to factors other than mental illness.”

[ … ]

Jeffrey W. Swanson, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Duke University School of Medicine and lead author of the article in Annals of Epidemiology was quoted in the UCLA Newsroom saying ”but even if schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression were cured, our society’s problem of violence would diminish by only about 4 percent.”

That is not very much. When people with mental illness do act violently it is typically for the same reasons that people without mental illness act violently.

In other words, advocacy for mental health checks and blame of the “mentally ill” for violence in the U.S. is not only unfair, it is a ruse intended to hide the real reasons for the advocacy, which is to intrude on civil rights and the moral duty of self defense.

It’s nice to see the recapitulation of things already said about this issue, in fact things I have cataloged.

Clinicians treating patients hear their fears, anger, sadness, fantasies and hopes, in a protected space of privacy and confidentiality, which is guaranteed by federal and state laws. Mental health professionals are legally obligated to break this confidentiality when a patient “threatens violence to self or others.” But clinicians rarely report unless the threat is immediate, clear and overt.

Mental health professionals understand that, despite our intimate knowledge of the thoughts of our patients, we are not very good at predicting what people will do. Our knowledge is always incomplete and conditional, and we do not have the methods to objectively predict future behavior. Tendencies, yes; specific actions, no. To think that we can read a person’s brain the way a scanner in airport security is used to detect weapons is a gross misunderstanding of psychological science, and very far from the nuanced but uncertain grasp clinicians have on patients’ state of mind.

What about diagnoses?

If mental health professionals were required to report severe mental illness (such as paranoid schizophrenia) to state authorities, it would have an immediate chilling effect on the willingness of people to disclose sensitive information, and would discourage many people from seeking treatment. What about depression, bipolar disorder, substance abuse or post-traumatic stress disorder, along with other types of mental illness that have some link to self-harm and impulsive action? The scope of disclosure that the government could legally compel might end up very wide, without any real gain in predictive accuracy.

Diagnosis is an inexact and constantly evolving effort, and it is contentious within the profession. To use a diagnosis as the basis of reporting the possibility of violence to the authorities would make the effort of accurate evaluation much more fraught. And what of the families and friends of the mentally ill? Should their weapons purchases be restricted as well? A little reflection shows how unworkable in practice any screening by diagnosis would be.

“We’re not likely to catch very many potentially violent people” with laws like the one in New York, says Barry Rosenfeld, a professor of psychology at Fordham University in The Bronx….

study of experienced psychiatrists at a major urban psychiatric facility found that they were wrong about which patients would become violent about 30 percent of the time.

That’s a much higher error rate than with most medical tests, says Alan Teo, a psychiatrist at the University of Michigan and an author of the study.

One reason even experienced psychiatrists are often wrong is that there are only a few clear signs that a person with a mental illness is likely to act violently, says Steven Hoge, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University. These include a history of violence and a current threat to commit violence ….

Perhaps most important, although people with serious mental illness have committed a large percentage of high-profile crimes, the mentally ill represent a very small percentage of the perpetrators of violent crime overall. Researchers estimate that if mental illness could be eliminated as a factor in violent crime, the overall rate would be reduced by only 4 percent. That means 96 percent of violent crimes—defined by the FBI as murders, robberies, rapes, and aggravated assaults—are committed by people without any mental-health problems at all. Solutions that focus on reducing crimes by the mentally ill will make only a small dent in the nation’s rate of gun-related murders, ranging from mass killings to shootings that claim a single victim.  It’s not just that the mentally ill represent a minority of the country’s population; it’s also that the overlap between mental illness and violent behavior is poor.

Whether folks engage in myth-telling because they believe in myths, or just want to mislead, the result is the same.  Communicating lies is both hurtful and sinful.  We are required to tell the truth, and the truth is that there is little to no correlation between mental health, whatever that is, and violence.

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  1. On June 30, 2014 at 11:19 am, Carl Stevenson said:

    “Psychiatry” (as practiced by compliant lackeys) has been used by tyrants throughout history as an excuse to disarm, imprison, “disappear”, and murder political opponents.

  2. On June 30, 2014 at 10:59 pm, guest said:

    Maybe not “throughout history,” but certainly ever since its creation. The pseudoscience that calls itself “psychiatry” is less than 150 years old.

  3. On June 30, 2014 at 1:33 pm, Frank Clarke said:

    …and the only solution is that people must be ready, willing, and able to participate in their own defense.

  4. On July 2, 2014 at 1:02 pm, Odysseus M Tanner said:

    There’s a lot of misdirection and excuses being made in this article. Spree killings, where multiple random victims are involved, are committed almost entirely by mentally ill people. If we want to reduce this type of violence we could start by providing treatment for the people who need it, instead of misdirecting with made up “myths.”

  5. On July 2, 2014 at 1:13 pm, Herschel Smith said:

    “Spree killings, where multiple random victims are involved, are committed almost entirely by mentally ill people.”

    You don’t know that, because you can’t define mental illness without your definition being, as the philosophers call it, “self referentially incoherent.”

  6. On July 2, 2014 at 2:17 pm, Odysseus M Tanner said:

    That would be the case if one were to claim that a spree killer is, ipso facto, insane, which is not the case here.

  7. On July 2, 2014 at 2:25 pm, Herschel Smith said:

    I think that is indeed the case here. By saying what you did – “Spree killings, where multiple random victims are involved, are committed almost entirely by mentally ill people” – you’ve already reasoned in a circle. If someone asks you to define “mentally ill,” all you have to do is craft a definition that meets your standard.

    You’ve made my point. I disagree with the core assertion, and I claim that you know no such thing as you think you know.

  8. On July 2, 2014 at 2:59 pm, Odysseus M Tanner said:

    Well there are the examples of Isla Vista, Arizona, Aurora, Sandy Hook, Navy Yard, Virginia Tech, which may not cover all but it suffices.

  9. On July 2, 2014 at 3:11 pm, Herschel Smith said:

    You don’t know that a single one of those persons was “mentally ill.” You’re only assuming that is the case. On the other hand, I might assume that they are evil, but not mentally ill, whatever that might mean.

  10. On July 2, 2014 at 3:29 pm, Odysseus M Tanner said:

    I believe the Virginia Tech killer had actually been adjudicated ‘mentally defective’ (I think that’s the legal term). The others were also known to be mentally disturbed in some way. I do not mean to misrepresent what it means to be ‘mentally ill’. What I’m concerned with, in reducing the incidence of such attacks, is (1) there are often unheeded warning signs that an individual is a violent threat (the Arizona killer was kicked out of his college for this reason), and (2) better treatment of the underlying disorders could help reduce violence and alleviate the psychological suffering of would-be killers. We cannot predict which disturbed people are at risk of such violence, but we can improve our mental health system.

  11. On July 2, 2014 at 3:52 pm, Herschel Smith said:

    And I’m asserting – and I believe that the bulk of “mental health professionals” will assert – that what you’re classifying as “violent threat” bears no relationship to “mentally ill,” whatever that means.

    And be careful what you ask for. There are many in government who would like mental health professionals to adjudicate us defective for believing in the second amendment. Obama’s recent nominee for Surgeon General was just such a person.

    It is pseudo-science at the very best, and being the most gracious I can be, not science. I do science every day. I know the difference.

  12. On July 2, 2014 at 4:32 pm, Odysseus M Tanner said:

    You’re assuming too much. If we want to reduce such incidents aside from the gun issue: (1) unheeded warning signs – we should learn from them – I offered no specifics; (2) being disturbed, these killers might’ve benefited from better treatment and gone on a different course in life.

  13. On July 2, 2014 at 4:39 pm, Herschel Smith said:

    You’re still conflating (“better treatment”) mental health professionals and what they can know, clinically, and mental health, with propensity to violence.

    That correlation doesn’t exist. Period. It’s a fabrication of folk’s imaginations, mostly folks who have swallowed the claptrap in sophomore college classrooms (yea, I’ve had those silly courses too).

  14. On July 2, 2014 at 5:21 pm, Odysseus M Tanner said:

    You’re assuming none of these people were suffering?

  15. On July 2, 2014 at 5:33 pm, Herschel Smith said:

    Who said anything about suffering? And what does that have to do with the price of eggs in China?

    Oh my. Oh my. I just don’t know how else to say it to someone whose mind is made up. The correlation you wish to draw between “mental health” and propensity to violence just doesn’t exist. It’s a ghost – a phantom. It’s real only in your mind, not in the world around you that actually exists. Go back and study the articles and references I supply. You can believe in ghosts if you wish.

    I’m reminded of the man who went to the hospital ER and told the nurse he was dead. No matter how the nurse tried to convince him otherwise, he wouldn’t budge. The man was dead, he claimed.

    She then asked him a question. “Sir, do dead men bleed?” No, he said. So she pricked his skin, with a little blood seeping out of the pin prick.

    “I guess dead men do bleed,” he exclaimed.

    At any rate, just a story. And you can believe in phantoms if you wish.

  16. On July 2, 2014 at 5:36 pm, Odysseus M Tanner said:

    Relax, I asked you a question for a reason, not here to draw any such correlation.

  17. On July 2, 2014 at 5:42 pm, Herschel Smith said:

    You have drawn that correlation in every comment you’ve made.

  18. On July 2, 2014 at 5:44 pm, Odysseus M Tanner said:

    Maybe I could explain if you’d answer the question.

  19. On July 2, 2014 at 5:54 pm, Herschel Smith said:

    Oh. I see This isn’t serious mental malfeasance on your part, something I need to help correct. My altruistic side got the best of me. You’re just a troll.

    Banned. All future comments deleted. Thanks for playing.

  20. On July 3, 2014 at 5:03 am, Arch Stanton said:

    “…..They scoffed at me; joked at me; made up songs about me. Lt. Merrick was the “perfect offcicer”, but not Cpt Queeg! Ah, but the strawberries! That’s where I had them. And I would have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt and with geometric logic that a duplicate key to the wardroom icebook Definitely Did Exist, if they hadn’t taken the Caine out of action. I know now that they were trying to protect some fellow officer. They were all disloyal”………..Caine Mutiny trial

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This article is filed under the category(s) Firearms,Guns and was published June 29th, 2014 by Herschel Smith.

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