Experts say one of the most pervasive misconceptions about mental illness is that perpetrators of America’s all-too-common mass shootings have mental health issues.
It’s no surprise why that stereotype persists: Politicians often bring up mental health reform following tragedies. Public figures discuss mental illness and gun violence on social media, inaccurately linking the two. A 2016 study also found that more than a third of stories in the media connected mental illness with violence toward others, but that figure does not reflect the actual rates of interpersonal violence where mental illness is involved.
In an effort to break down the stereotypes and complexities surrounding this topic, HuffPost asked mental health professionals to share their thoughts on the popular misconceptions. Below is what they wished everyone understood:
1. People with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence.
“I want everyone to know that gun violence and mental health are often connected by media and urban myth in ways that they really aren’t, and worse, shouldn’t be. While it is true a very small number of those who have a mental illness act in a violent manner, there are far more people who act violently and do not have a mental illness.” ―Dan Reidenberg, executive director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education
2. If they do commit violence, it’s usually in the form of self-harm.
“Further, when someone with a mental illness does act violently, most often it is toward themselves. In fact, 66 percent of those who die by firearm in this country do so at their own hand.” ―Dan Reidenberg
3. Treatment isn’t necessarily the solution to gun violence.
“Less than a quarter of the perpetrators of mass killings appear to suffer from mental illness. Even if we were to try to eliminate risk from that 22 percent, there is simply no way to do it by approaching the problem via mental health. None. You can’t force people into treatment; you can’t necessarily treat them successfully; and you certainly can’t lock them up forever.” ―Prudence Gourguechon, a former president of the American Psychoanalytic Association
4. Policy changes might help alleviate the problem.
“Talking about mental health in relation to gun violence, whether it’s mass murder … or domestic violence, is a dangerous distraction from the policy changes we need. I’m all for greater funding for mental health services and manpower. But it won’t do anything about our country’s problem with gun violence.” ―Mark D. Smaller, a former president of the American Psychoanalytic Association
5. Words like ‘crazy’ or ‘deranged’ don’t help the conversation.
“Can we please stop using the words ‘crazy’, ‘nuts’, ‘deranged’, ‘psycho’, etc. when referring to mental health and mental illness? This does nothing to help de-stigmatize help-seeking behavior.” ―Priya Thomas, wellness and leadership development consultant and former director of Prevention & Wellness at Florida Gulf Coast University
6. Mass violence isn’t a symptom of a mental illness.
“Think about people you know that have or had a mental health issue, depression, anxiety, ADD ― did any of them reach for a gun to go hurt others? Likely not, and the reason why is clear: [People with] mental health issues don’t go looking for guns to hurt others. Mental health issues are the result of brain illnesses and environmental impacts that can change our thoughts, emotions, behaviors and cause physical pain.” ―Dan Reidenberg
7. Experts can’t always predict who will become violent…
“I have talked to individuals with homicidal impulses. They can be very sophisticated and careful not to say anything that would allow me to take reporting action. The only solution is to make sure they can’t get their hands on a lethal weapon. Or if they already have access to them, as so many do, make sure these are removed from their homes.” ―Prudence Gourguechon
8. But it’s still important to stay aware of subtle warning signs.
“Frequently, individuals who become violent or shooters let those around them know that they are in trouble, either by behavior or direct or indirect communication (‘I feel like I’m going to explode,’ ‘I sometimes want to die,’ ‘I will not be bullied one more time’). We must be listening not only to these communications, but respond with action to get the person help or alert law enforcement authorities that someone could be either a danger to themselves or others.” ―Mark D. Smaller
9. Gun violence isn’t the same around the world ― but the rates of mental illness are similar.
“There’s no greater incidence of psychiatric disorders in other countries, and they don’t have the gun violence problem we have.” ―Prudence Gourguechon
10. Mental illness isn’t something to be feared or shamed.
“Speaking about mental health in a fear-based way is an easy way to scapegoat it. It can also be a way to dismiss an incident, because it was ‘just some crazy person’ who got a hold of a gun, which minimizes other contributing factors.” ―Priya Thomas
Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.
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