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Health Experts Push Back On Mental Illness Blamed For Mass Shootings

Illustration of brain. / Jolygon

After a mass shooting takes place, the conversation often turns toward access to mental health services or laws focused on keeping firearms out of the hands of people with mental illness. But the assumption that this group is committing the most gun violence is largely false, according to some health experts in Utah.

Following last week’s shootings in Texas and Ohio that left over 30 people dead, Republican Utah Rep. Chris Stewart released a video statement reacting to the tragedies.

“We can do better than this. For two years I have supported legislation that would have taken weapons out of the hands of those who are mentally incompetent of dealing with them. That’s one of the things we absolutely have to focus on now,” Stewart said, a stance he reiterated at meetings in Hurricane and North Salt Lake this week.

“Mental health almost always gets portrayed in mass media as being involved with violent crime or especially mass shootings, and it’s just not the case statistically,” said Jeremy Christensen, assistant director of Utah’s Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health.

According to Christensen, 95% of people who commit violent crimes don’t have a serious mental illness. 

A 2016 paper from the American Psychiatric Association noted that mass shootings by people with serious mental illness amount to fewer than one percent of all gun deaths. 

“Perpetrators of mass shootings are unlikely to have a history of involuntary psychiatric hospitalization. Thus, databases intended to restrict access to guns and established by guns (sic) laws that broadly target people with mental illness will not capture this group of individuals.”

Mental illness is often blamed following shootings in an effort to explain what happened, said Barry Rose, manager of crisis services at the University Neuropsychiatric Institute or UNI.

“Mental health is a pretty simple way to say ‘Well, that’s a cause. That’s a cause we can understand.’ But that’s really not the case,” Rose said.

He said today’s angry public rhetoric and easy access to guns in America are bigger contributing factors to firearm violence.

According to Christensen with the Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health, more productive prevention efforts would be to identify individuals with a history of violent behavior and intervene with them early.

Some public health officials and gun rights advocates in Utah have pointed out that mass shooters exhibit the risk factor of being willing to take their own life, which was discussed in a recent story by KUER. However Christensen says there is a distinction to be made between individuals who commit homicides and those who die by suicide, the latter of which make up the vast majority of gun-related deaths in Utah

Expanded mental health services are critical for reducing death by suicide in Utah, Christensen said, but they shouldn’t be conflated with mass shooters.

“They’re both difficult, heavy societal issues. But when we’re looking at homicide and gun violence, mental illness is a very small part of the conversation compared to other factors.”

Erik Neumann is a radio producer and writer. A native of the Pacific Northwest, his work has appeared on public radio stations and in magazines along the West Coast. He received his Bachelor's Degree in geography from the University of Washington and a Master's in Journalism from UC Berkeley. Besides working at KUER, he enjoys being outside in just about every way possible.
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