Don't blame mental health for mass shootings

Sarah K. Lanzo, Independent Living

August 20, 2019


"What are we going to do about those mentally ill guys who shoot a lot of people?"

I cannot tell you how furious and disgusted I become when one politician after another asks some variation of that question, just to provide a snarky knee-jerk Twitter comment for the media that implies they are working on the problem, or have some idea how it could be addressed.

Anyone following the news coverage of the tragic mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, is likely to have heard President Donald Trump calling the shooters "mentally ill monsters" and recommending "involuntary confinement" for some folks. Or perhaps Texas Governor Greg Abbott claiming that mental health disabilities are "a large contributor to any type of violence or shooting violence." But multiple studies have shown little correlation between mental health issues and violent killings, finding that those living with these concerns are far more likely to be victims of violence rather than perpetrators. Many experts have spoken out to condemn these inaccurate associations.

John Dornheim with the North Texas Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) called this "an easy out for politicians" to avoid looking at the root cause. Someone's being antisocial and mean with violent tendencies should not be confused with his having mental health issues.

American Psychological Association President Rosie Phillips Davis notes that, "the rates of mental illness are roughly the same around the world, yet other countries are not experiencing these traumatic events as often as we face them." While we have 5% of the world's population, 31% of all the mass shootings in the world occur in the U.S. Authorities note that "stronger predictors of someone becoming a mass shooter [are] a strong sense of resentment, desire for infamy, copycat study of other shooters, past domestic violence, narcissism and access to firearms."

An extensive long-term study by researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, published in the April 2019 issue of Elsevier ScienceDirect's Preventative Medicine, explicitly contradicts the mental health and mass shooting connection, finding no link between the two.

In the weeks since those events, the President has responded to massive criticism by doubling down on the discredited cliché, claiming that re-opening long-shuttered mental asylums would diminish mass shootings — and having Health and Human Services muzzle government-funded scientists who might dispute him. Are our elected leaders among those "living in a bubble" through which any facts challenging their preconceptions cannot penetrate?

The unanticipated collateral damage from this policy of blame is heightened stigma. Many with mental health concerns who probably would have sought treatment now are likely to avoid it. They fear that, if their benign issues were made known, others would assume they, too, must have violent tendencies and are dangerous. So whenever supposed mental health disorders are scapegoated for a mass shooting, the people hiding their issues are the secondary victims that no one knows about.

We as Americans need to take a serious look at our society and culture and perhaps re-examine how we deal with our nation's issues. Instead of pointing the finger of blame at marginalized populations, people from other lands, and individuals with mental issues as the cause of these shootings, we should more properly consider them unrecognized victims. Let's roll up our sleeves and get to the root of these concerns by: working together; providing assistance where it's needed; embracing our differences as a strength instead of a weakness; and collectively ensuring that all in our nation have a platform where they can be heard, supported and accepted, as we work toward a greater America.


Sarah K. Lanzo is the director of Independent Living of Niagara County, a member of the Western New York Independent Living Inc. family of agencies that serve individuals with disabilities. For more information, call 284-4131, extension 200.