In contemporary society, gang violence, murder, school shootings drive-by shooting, among other acts of violence are committed daily. According to the APA (2013), gun violence remains an important global issue leading to at least 31,000 deaths annually in the US. Violence and mental illness are often seen as inextricably intertwined. In the US, the prevalence of gun violence has substantially declined a trend that studies have attributed to the greater availability of mental health care (RAND Corporation, 2018). Persons with mental illnesses perpetrate only a small percentage of gun violence. As such, mental illness does not have a significant relationship with violent behavior.
Mass Shootings Perpetrated By Persons with Mental Disorders
Some of the gun homicide cases in the American history where perpetrators were believed to be influenced by mental illness includes Newtown, Connecticut Event of December 14, 2012, Where Adam Lanza aged 20 years killed 28 people and Austin, Texas event of august 1, 1996 where Charles Whiteman aged 25-years killed 18 people (Linnane, 2017). In both incidents, the perpetrators died, making it impossible to determine the actual cause of violent behavior. During the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Adam Lanza was believed to be suffering from Asperger syndrome. According to a report released by Connecticut State Attorney’s office, as a teenager, Lanza had obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, and depression. His teenage psychological disorders may have escalated to cause his murderous behavior.
In the Texas tower homicide event, Charles Whiteman was suffering from mental disturbance at the time of committing the murderous act. He also had indicated being attracted to the idea of shooting people at the Texas tower. An autopsy conducted on Whiteman’s body showed that he had a brain tumor. Negative public attitudes against persons with severe psychological disorders are persistent and pervasive in the US. A national public opinion survey conducted in 2013 indicated that 46% of the American population perceived people with mental illnesses to be more dangerous.
The psychological disorder denotes a collection of symptoms marked by disturbance in a person’s behavior, emotions, or cognitions (Myers, & DeWall, 2017). There is a wide range of psychological illnesses, including mood disorders, anxiety disorders, and schizophrenia, among others. Psychiatrists and psychologists have classified psychological disorders into various categories. Different psychological disturbances exhibit different symptoms that scientists use to classify disorders and prescribe treatment. As such, certain mental disturbances are considered disorders when they meet specific criteria (Myers, & DeWall, 2017). Despite Whiteman and Lanza exhibiting psychological challenges, the symptoms they exhibited does not meet any criteria of mental illness and it is therefore not conclusive that their violent behaviour were as a result of mental illnesses.
Clinicians classify psychological disorders by providing diagnostic descriptions and labels that aid mental health practitioners to classify illnesses. DSM is used to diagnose psychological illnesses (Myers & DeWall, 2017). However, some psychologists criticize the use of diagnostic labels claiming that they can create perceptions that can unfairly stigmatize people. People must understand that mental illnesses involve brain diseases and not a failure in character. As such, labels can be used to guide treatment without excusing people’s behavior or stigmatizing them. A condition is considered a disorder when the response is distressful, deviant, and dysfunctional.
Anxiety is regarded as a normal reaction to stress. Anxiety disorders differ from normal anxiousness or nervousness, as it involves excessive fear. There are a wide range of anxiety disorders, including phobia, panic disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder, among others (Myers, & DeWall, 2017). Anxiety behavior and feelings are classified as a psychological disorder when it is characterized by maladaptive behavior intended to reduce it or when it becomes persistent or distressing. Mood disorders are conditions characterized by emotional extremes and include bipolar disorder major depression, among others. Mood disorder differs from ordinary sadness and pessimism in that the mood is disproportionately long or severe. Schizophrenia is a disease of the brain characterized by disturbed perceptions and beliefs, disorganized speech, and inappropriate and diminishing actions and emotions (Myers, & DeWall, 2017). The symptoms of schizophrenia differ from the ordinary thoughts and perceptions in that it involves brain damage and is difficult to treat.
Sometimes, mental illness is associated with violent or aggressive behavior. However, people with mental challenges receiving medical care are no more dangerous or violent than the rest of the population. Epidemiological studies indicate that a majority of persons with severe psychological disorders not violent (Swanson, McGinty, Fazel, & Mays, 2015). According to a research conducted by Varshney, Mahapatra, Krishnan, Gupta, & Deb (2016), persons with mental illnesses are more likely to cause self-harm or be harmed than they are to hurt others. Violence is not a symptom of a psychological disorder. Research suggests that there exists an insignificant relationship between violence and mental illness (Grob, 2019). It is therefore inappropriate to stereotype persons with psychological disorders as dangerous and more likely to exhibit violent behavior.
American Psychological Association [APA]. (2013). Gun violence: Prediction, prevention, and policy: APA panel of experts report. American Psychological Association.
Grob, G. N. (2019). Mental illness and American society, 1875-1940 (Vol. 5316). Princeton University Press.
Linnane, C., (2017). These are the 10 deadliest mass shootings in modern U.S. History. Retrieved from: https://www.marketwatch.com/story/these-are-the-10-deadliest-mass-shootings-in-us-history-2017-10-02
Myers, D.G., & DeWall, C.N. (2017). Psychology in everyday life. New York, NY: Worth Publishers.
RAND Corporation. (2018). The relationship between mental health care access and suicide. Retrieved from: https://www.rand.org/research/gun-policy/analysis/essays/mental-health-access-and-suicide.html
Swanson, J. W., McGinty, E. E., Fazel, S., & Mays, V. M. (2015). Mental illness and reduction of gun violence and suicide: bringing epidemiologic research to policy. Annals of epidemiology, 25(5), 366-376.
Varshney, M., Mahapatra, A., Krishnan, V., Gupta, R., & Deb, K. S. (2016). Violence and mental illness: what is the true story? J Epidemiol Community Health, 70(3), 223-225.