Let's pretend gun violence and mass shootings are a mental health issue, even though we know the vast majority of mass shooters do not have a history of documented mental illness. But let's pretend. American society is in more trouble than anyone can imagine. In any given year, approximately 25% of American adults will experience a mental illness. That's over 50 million adults. So if mass shootings and gun violence are because of mental illness, then there are at least 50 million potential perpetrators of mass violence at any given moment in America every year. Feel better? It's absurd to equate mental illness with violence so stop doing it.
When political figures and national spokespersons call for mental health reform and even a national registry of individuals diagnosed with a mental illness, it's completely and purposefully inaccurate. Statistics show that the vast majority of violent crimes are committed by individuals without a history of mental illness. As a matter of fact, individuals with a history of mental illness tend to be the victim of violent crime, not the perpetrator. This is common knowledge, so why are people pushing the opposite narrative?
The mental illness – violence fallacy is offensive to all people who struggle with a mental illness. It dehumanizes the person and their fight against mental illness. It dismisses them as “crazy” and unworthy of attention or care. It makes the person the “other”. This fallacy is embarrassing at a societal level and maddening at a mental health advocacy level.
So then why the fallacy? Simple. It's emotionally convenient. Society is shifting to a culture of easiness, psychological simplicity, and immediate gratification. That's not a good thing, it's a bad thing. Thinking and reflecting is out, reacting and crucifying is in.
The mental health – violence fallacy satisfies the three characteristics from above. It's easy because it's about the “other” person, so distancing oneself (the sane one) from the “insane” takes minimal time and effort. It's simple in that it takes little psychological resources to accept that a person “snapped” and committed a random act of violence. Lastly, it's gratifying to get a quick, clean explanation like the mentally ill person committed an act of violence. When the “other” is identified, then it's very easy to stop caring, in fact it's championed by many.
For decades, social psychologists have investigated and proven these attribution and in-outgroup biases in countless studies. It's time we faced the messy fact that gun violence and mass shootings are NOT a mental illness issue, but actually a cultural issue. Within culture are issues like power dynamics, self-worth, social inclusion and isolation, economic marginalization, 24-hour media, public health, and many others that are largely ignored in the discussion. Let's ask real questions of what about culture seemingly perpetuates the indiscriminate violence.
In a previous post, “The Psychology of an Extremist”, I provided a framework of the extremist mind. Much like in therapy, if the goal is true and genuine change, then it's imperative to have a thorough and rich understanding of the individual. The same needs to happen in understanding what leads individuals to indiscriminately kill.
What about our culture has exacerbated the issue of violence and mass shootings? It may feel like there are endless possibilities and variables within our culture that could be associated with violence. That narrative has to be changed. We have to consider all possibilities and variables, if the desire to fix this public health crisis is genuine. It's not a quick answer and fix, it will take time and incredible effort.
People say stereotypes are good, they keep us safe. Usually these people are the stereotyper, not the stereotypee. Generalizations are certainly easy, satisfying, and safe; but they aren't solving problems. They serve to divide and push people to extreme ideologies and actions. If we really want to solve societal ills like violence, then we have to do the messy work of analyzing the dynamic of the individual within the culture. Unfortunately for many, we have to know the person, to humanize what seems so inhumane.
The frequency of violence and mass shootings is anything but random. When there are tens of thousands violent episodes with guns each year, it's not random. So let's stop playing the random mental illness card. It's disingenuous and cowardly.
This is the fork in the road. One direction leads to a clear, smooth path of superficial dialogue peppered with inherently misleading and misguided suggestions. The other is a bumpy, muddy path of meaningful and possibly uneasy truths grounded in facts and reality.
It's our obligation as a society to take the right, albeit bumpy, path.
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Salmaan Toor is a licensed clinical psychologist practicing in Knoxville, TN. If you are interested in being notified of future posts, you can “like” The Family Center of Knoxville on facebook here or can follow me on Twitter here. Thanks for your support!