Misconceptions about mental health and shootings

The common misconception in America is that the person pulling the trigger is unstable, and did so because of some diagnosed or undiagnosed illness.

Only 2.4 percent of violent crimes committed over a 13-year period were by people who were mentally ill, according to an August 2006 study published in The American Journal of Psychiatry. The conclusion of the study suggested only a one in 20 risk of violent crimes committed by persons with severe mental illness.

Instead, more research has found that people who have a mental illness are more likely to be victims of violent crimes than instigators.

Chris Barry, an associate professor of psychology at Washington State University, acknowledged that it’s hard to argue that people who commit school shootings are in a right frame of mine. However, the ratio of those with mental illnesses to school shootings is very small.

“When we consider the number of people who have mental illnesses, the vast majority of them don’t engage in any violent behavior, especially engaging in violent behavior with guns,” Barry said. “To just pin school shootings on mental health or people with mental issues really misses the issue.”

Barry focuses much of his research on adolescents and their behavior. Having preventative measures in place is something that he believes would go further in decreasing the risk violent crimes, whether individuals have a mental illness or not.

“I think in general we get kind of reactive about these things,” he said. “We decide after it happens in a reactive way or point blame to certain variables, and I think it does matter not just for violent but for adjustment for adults in general. The more we can be proactive and prevention-minded will be better.”

“One of the early prevention methods we hope to foster is a sense of empathy between the person and other people around them.”

However, the genesis of misconceptions involving school shootings is the media portrayal immediately after one takes place.

Carrie Cuttler, a clinical assistant professor at WSU, said the news that sells is not going to help the portrayal of the truth.

“News outlets will focus on what garners attention and what sells,” Cuttler said. “You are more likely to want to read something that catches your attention rather than not. So the misconception that mental illness causes school shootings is driven a lot by media, and it’s sad.”

The combination of the media’s portrayal of mental illnesses causing shoot shootings, and the greater need for preventative measures with those who are mentally ill, create the misconception of what truly causes individuals to commit those violent outbursts.