Here we are on the heels of several mass shootings. What used to be shocking has become commonplace. In fact, the United States is averaging more than one per month for the last five years.
These events have the public, media, talking heads and politicians searching for explanations and an answer to stop the bloodshed.
Increasingly, mental illness has become the convenient culprit. But let’s not mistake correlation for causation.
Mental illness does not cause violence. If it did, then homicide rates in other developed countries would be on par with that of the United States. They are not.
In 2012, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime found that Americans are 4.5 times more likely to die by homicide than citizens of other developed countries.
And while more than 25 percent of Americans will have a diagnosable mental disorder, nearly all of them will not hurt or threaten to hurt anyone. And nearly all them find the actions of Adam Lanza, Elliot Rodger and Aaron Ybarra reprehensible.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, most violent crime is not committed by the mentally ill. Yet those 25 percent of Americans are all implicated when we point the finger squarely at mental illness. Never mind the fact that over 99 percent of Americans with mental illness pose no danger to society. Never mind the fact that many shooters have almost no history of mental health problems. The Northern Illinois University shooter, for example, had a fairly normal life and was respected by students and faculty.
Being quick to say mental illness is the sole cause of mass shootings is not accurate, and the effects of doing so are potentially harmful to society. In blaming mental illness, we further its negative stigma, making people less likely to seek needed help for fear of being perceived as “crazy” or unstable. This will result in more, not fewer, problems.
The role of mental health in these tragedies should not be ignored. But we should be careful not to blame or make sweeping generalizations about mental illness. Nor should we use mental health as a scapegoat for other possible contributors: unfettered access to weapons (as in the Virginia Tech, Columbine, Aurora and Sandy Hook tragedies), racism and hate (Las Vegas, Oak Creek and Fort Hood) and misogynist beliefs (Isla Vista shooting). Each should share a proportional amount of the blame.
Indeed, the latter of these spurred the creation of the #YesAllWomen movement, which propagates the notion that women live in a world saturated in misogyny and with the continued threat of male violence.
So why is mental illness the new bogeyman?
Is it because so many believe that severe mental illness is something that happens to other people and to other families, in other communities and school districts?
Or maybe it gives us a target for prevention? That is, if we can identify and improve mental illness, we will stop the mass shootings?
I can’t say for certain, but if I can find a silver lining in this mental-illness-as-scapegoat thinking, it’s this: A more aware nation is beginning to understand our woefully inadequate mental health system.
We are beginning to see increased funding for services and research and the introduction of mental health legislation, such as the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act offered by U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa.
I hope the newfound attention and funding will be focused on two areas: increased access to affordable and evidence-based care, and increased primary prevention and health promotion programs that are implemented early in life and offered continuously throughout the developmental years.
The former will catch the people who fell through the cracks, and the latter will prevent the next generation from falling.
Temple is a licensed psychologist, associate professor and director of behavioral health and research in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Texas Medical Branch.