Source: Melanie Wasser/Unsplash
Mass shootings and spontaneous murders tragically impact innocent lives. With attacks seemingly coming out of the blue, people are left to question an attacker’s motives. Many conclude it is the result of mental illness, fearing schizophrenia specifically.
When Salvador Ramos murdered 21 people in Uvalde, Texas, during an unprecedented mass shooting, his wasn’t the first and most likely will not be the last to be called a massacre by a person with “mental health disturbances,” as quoted by a tweet made by Candace Owens, a popular internet critic. Texas Governor Greg Abbott stated after the massacre that, “Anybody who shoots somebody else has a mental health problem, period,” and later went on to state more changes must be done to the American mental health system in a speech following the event.
This belief about failing mental healthcare being a factor in mass shootings is not new. In 2015, a poll conducted by Washington Post and ABC News found that 63% of people surveyed believed mass shootings were due to inadequacies of the mental health system.
What do “mental health disturbances” really mean? Oftentimes, people describe mass shooters as “psychotic” or “psycho.” But do those terms really reflect the very real disorder that affects millions worldwide?
Schizophrenia, a harrowing condition that affects one’s ability to tell the difference between reality and delusional thinking, affects about .25-.64% of the population (NIMH, 2015). New cases of psychosis affect up to 100,000 people per year. Those living with the disorder can appear erratic, talking in disjointed speech patterns and behaving differently than others.
While it has largely been reported that people with mental illness are more likely to be the victims of violence than perpetrators, people with schizophrenia appear to be singled out more, despite the fact that people with psychosis are more likely to hurt themselves than others.
As a person living with a schizophrenia disorder, I get nervous when the blame is put on people with psychosis. Research shows that people who read a media summary of a mass shooting committed by a person with serious mental illness are more likely to believe people living with mental illness were “by far” more dangerous than the general population (Fox & Fridel, 2015).
While tempting to get swept up in the media hype, turning to the data may provide better insight into what goes into massacres to examine questions like, how much of this crime is due to schizophrenia? And is there any evidence behind the idea that people with schizophrenia are more dangerous and will orchestrate violent attacks?
Researchers have been examining mass shootings that have occurred since the 20th century. A study published in Violence and Gender found that out of 235 cases of mass murders done between 1913 and 2015, only 22% of the perpetrators exhibited symptoms of mental illness (Beltzer et al., 2022; Stone, 2015). Out of 88 mass shooting cases since 1966, only 14.8% were done by people diagnosed with a psychotic disorder (Fox & Fridel, 2016).
Popular databases have contributed to the narrative that mass shooters display some kind of mental illness. But those databases can record information often without professional evaluation. The Mother Jones database, for example, states a rate of 60% of shooters who appeared to exhibit some form of cognitive or mental impairment—but only considered through the viewpoints of neighbors, friends, and relatives who were asked to reflect after the event occurred. (Fox & Fridel, 2016). In this sample, professional opinions declared only 12.5% to exhibit psychosis, with only half of them diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.
It seems the presence of schizophrenia symptoms alone is not enough to draw a causal line of inference between mass attacks and schizophrenia. In fact, predisposing traits of mass killers notably include chronic frustration and inability to meet goals combined with externalizing blame, regardless of the presence of psychosis (Fox & Levin, 2022). Mass shooters almost universally exhibit social issues in school, family, or work including bullying, exiling from the home (in childhood and adult life), or employment termination combined with self-perceived victimization years before they carry out an attack. While people who simply share these emotions may not act out in a violent massacre, the accessibility to a firearm compounds the factors contributing to a mass killing.
A serious mental illness by definition is a condition that robs an individual’s ability to carry out daily tasks or live a full life. People who carry out planned attacks contradict this very definition. In the throes of psychosis, individuals often lack the cognitive capabilities needed to orchestrate complex tasks, so it would make sense as to why only a minority of shootings involve people with psychosis.
Mass shootings are complex crimes that warrant serious discussion (and serious research). Before we attribute blame to any one cause, we may want to stop and see if the data aligns with our thinking.