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Mental Health and Mass Violence

Matthew Cuddeback, LCSW

Mental health has become a major talking point recently as a result of people trying to make sense of the terrorist attacks in Texas and Ohio. These sad and all too frequent acts of violence are rife with areas worth discussion and understanding, but the area that I feel is crucial for mental health professionals to discuss is that it is patently false and extremely harmful to blame such violent acts on a person’s mental health. While much of the focus of these conversations is inaccurate and problematic, it does raise other tangential points worth discussing.

When there is an unsettling action from someone that gains the attention of those around them it is only natural for people to try to deduce a reason for why the person acted the way they did. When you scale this to violent terrorist acts people increase their focus and concern. This is something that is an adaptive trait to ensure we know what to look out for and stay safe once we have this knowledge. It also becomes maladaptive if not kept in check. We start to make false conclusions and believe what we hear more easily without as much scrutiny. In the hands of politicians these processes become even more dangerous as they can be used to advance their political ideologies. The same can be said for the media, they too cling to the most sensational and enticing pieces of information to increase sales and circulation. This has undoubtedly happened in these recent mass shootings, at the expense of those who are most effected.

There have been many studies that have, in no uncertain terms, shown that mental health is not a predictor of violence (though it is a strong predictor that those who suffer from mental health issues will in fact be victims of violent crime.) This is a point worth repeating, and in fact, shouting from the rooftops, mental health concerns do not predict and have little correlation to violent crime. Mental illness did not cause these mass shootings. In the afore mentioned search for reasons and understanding, we all too often claim, “Well obviously they were crazy for doing that!” But this is too simplistic and takes us off target in decoding the causes of such terrible actions. A difficult pill to swallow for sure, but someone who guns down a man protecting his wife, and his wife protecting their baby is not inherently “crazy.” We need to dig deeper and be more honest with ourselves when having these discussions and searching for answers about how to stop such horrible violence.

Aside from taking ourselves down a road that does not truly give us a better understanding of why these things happen and how to stop them, it opens up those who do suffer from mental health issues to more harm. There is far too much stigma around mental health in the US, roughly 1 in 5 people in the United States experience a mental illness of some sort. Anxiety, depression, trauma, mood dysregulation, adjustment disorders, body dysmorphia, 1/5 of us struggle with these at some time in our life. It can be hard to talk about this aspect of our lives as is, even harder to seek help, and made even harder by those who are so incredibly misinformed that say this will cause a person to take a weapon and hurt people. Further, the implications of acting on this misinformation would lead those who are struggling to not seek help, to get worse, and to have even graver outcomes than if there was no such stigma. Lastly, it would make little to no difference to put sanctions on those who struggle with mental health as it is again, nor a predictor of violence.

There are myriad reasons for why a person may do these things and it is disingenuous to suggest that it was a mental health issue that caused these people to enact such horrible violence, all the evidence that has been gathered for decades shows this. It is not simply access to weapons either, it is of course more complicated than that. It is a combination of factors, most often, a trauma history, access to weapons, feeling victimized, and fear or hatred of the other. When the fear of the other is already there and these flames are fanned by others it makes a potent combination. In order to quell these there are many avenues we must take, and better access to mental health care for those who experience violence and disallowing those in power to use people’s fears against them are good places to start. The area in which we can make the most progress quickly is in addressing fear and hatred of the other and the overall culture of fear, anger, and hatred we have found ourselves in, not incorrectly blaming mental health for these acts.

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