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  • Chad McCoy, M.A., LPC

Mass Shootings and Mental Health

Anytime there is a heinous shooting in the United States where people are senselessly harmed by another who sought to bring as much malevolence to innocent people as possible, there is always a jump to talk about mental health and how it relates to these events.


We can't dodge around it completely: Mental health, or the denigration thereof, has a role to play in these circumstances; however, it is important for us to note a few important distinctions: A person with a mental illness can commit horrible, heinous acts in this world. Thankfully enough, not all people with mental illnesses will commit heinous acts in this world. Unfortunately, many who turn to violence with degrading mental health, often turn the violence towards themselves.


To date the National Institute of Mental Health places mental illness prevalence at around the 1/5 or 20% mark lifetime prevalence; or 46.6 million individuals 18 and older with the largest population between 18-25 at 25.8% (Mental Health Statistics from the National Institute of Mental Health). If these numbers are to be believed, your chances of being harmed by somebody struggling with a mental illness, profound or otherwise, is still quite low. You're 2.75x more likely to die while riding your bicycle.

The transitive property does not suggest that all people who struggle with mental illness will commit heinous acts, but a portion of this who commit heinous acts might suffer from sociological, psychological, or other problems that might move them to act. It's far too complex a problem to lay at the feet of mental illness; even though it seem it does have a part to play. This op-ed published in the LA Times starts it list of commonalities between mass shooters with mental health concerns and previous traumatic experiences (Read more here).


As I did mention before, it may be a more accurate statement to not entirely place responsibility on mental health, but view as a symptom of the overall problem. You'd be hard pressed to have any clinician worth their salt to admit that these events are anything but abnormal. Even Neil deGrasse Tyson pointed towards that very nature in his, what many considered to be controversial tweets (Read more here from the New York Times). It is hard to say that people who commit these types of acts are of sounds mind and body. The profiles of these individuals usually point towards a lifetime of struggles, which typically involve violence and abuse within their own family, and struggles with their own mental health. They're able to voice their ideologies along with other misguided individuals on sites like 8Chan and the like. Unfortunately, even with great forensic tools and practitioners in the world, we still, as mental health professionals, cannot predict who or when somebody is going to harm themselves or anyone else. We have indicators that give us hints to how they may behave within a realm of error, but no sure fire, concrete tells. Its a fault built in with cake. People are autonomous self directing individuals and can experience the "perfect storm of events" that can often times motivate them to act in ways no one would have guessed. This can be a sense of feeling helpless to change their lives or the world, hopelessness that it's going to get better, intertwined with nihilism that leaves them lacking any meaning in their life.


So before you're quick to blame mental health, or quick to dismiss it all together, we need to be honest with these truths we are presented with:


1. Mass shootings are not a single faceted problem about guns, mental health, etc.

2. Mental health needs to be treated as important in our society as physical health.

3. Everyone is responsible for the destigmatization of seeking help for mental health.

4. Everyone wants this issue to completely stop. Period.


I'm sure there are others to add to this list. As best I can tell, there is no clear answer to how we address this specific issue; however, even considering the prevalence rate of lifetime mental health issues, I think advocating for more affordable, quality mental health services could do its part in creating a better, safer, healthier world.

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