It’s a stigma that is reinforced regularly on TV dramas and on the national news: The mentally ill are dangerous and violent. Where did this idea originate? Those behind mass shootings or other violent crimes may be found to be suffering from some form of mental health disorder, and the ongoing news coverage can leave viewers with the idea that mental health disorders must equal violence.

In fact, the mentally ill are 60 to 120 percent more likely than the average person to be the victims of violent crime rather than the perpetrators. When understandable but erroneous assumptions are allowed to continue unchecked, damage is done. Many people are hurt when “mentally ill” becomes synonymous in people’s minds with “violent threat.”

Just look at Sandy Hook. The US media diagnosed shooter Adam Lanza with schizophrenia in the days following the tragic 2012 school shooting in Connecticut. Meanwhile, conservative commentator Anne Coulter provocatively proclaimed that “guns don’t kill people, the mentally ill do.” The political response was similar. National Rifle Association President Wayne LaPierre blamed “delusional killers” for violence in the United States, while calling for a “national registry” of persons with mental illness.

In the months following the shooting, a number of states passed bills that required mental health professionals to report “dangerous patients” to local officials, who would then be authorized to confiscate any firearms that these persons might own. It’s easy to agree that “people who have mental health issues should not have guns,” as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo told reporters after a bill passed the New York Senate, but the issue is more complex than that.

Mental Illness as Scapegoat

A Vanderbilt University study published in the American Journal of Public Health by Dr. Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth T. MacLeish finds that an isolated focus on mental illness is misguided.

“Gun discourse after mass shootings often perpetuates the fear that ‘some crazy person is going to come shoot me,’” said Metzl, the study’s lead author. “But if you look at the research, it’s not the ‘crazy’ person you have to fear.”

In their article, “Mental Illness, Mass Shootings and the Politics of American Firearms,” Metzl and MacLeish analyze data and literature linking guns and mental illness over the past 40 years. They found what many mental health experts already knew: that despite societal pre-conceived notions, most mentally ill people are not violent. In fat, fewer than five percent of the 120,000 gun-related killings in the United States between 2001 and 2010 were perpetrated by people diagnosed with mental illness, they found.

Erroneous assumptions can make it harder for those suffering from mental illness to seek treatment. They fear being stigmatized. But help is available. If you or a loved one is struggling with an addiction and a co-occurring disorder, call us today.