The harmful myth of mentally ill shooters in the USA

More likely victims than offenders

Another shooting in the USA, and yet another series of talking points about reasons. One of the most common is mental health. When this talking points ensues, it enforces stigmatisation of people with mental health issues, people who are actually way more likely to be victims than offenders.

Hundreds of mass shootings take place in the US every year, when mass shooting is defined as “having four or more people injured or killed”. Many media outlets say there is now one shooting per day on average. And the majority of perpetrators are white males who act alone.

Their prevalence seem to leave little time for reflective consideration. Quick fixes and easy answers dominate public discourse. The go-to conclusion of mental illness is a comfortable one. Nobody can understand it, so the brains must be ‘diseased’. In truth, a tremendous amount of misguided beliefs are in play.

Though mental illness is not necessarily accompanied by strange behavior (and exhibiting strange and abnormal behavior does not mean you have a mental illness), the belief that it is is  held by many people  and so the connection is easy to make. (Psychology Today)

Portraying mass shootings as a mental health problem gravely misrepresents the evidence. In fact, people with mental health illnesses are way more likely to be victims of violence (including violence committed by police).

A 2004 analysis of more than 60 mass murders in North America, for example, found that just 6% were psychotic at the time of the killings. And when it comes to mass shootings, those with mental illness account for “less than 1% of all yearly gun-related homicides ”, a 2016 study found. Other studies indicate that people with mental disorders account for just 3-5% of overall violence in the US, (much lower than the prevalence of mental illness in the general population – up to 18%) which “still leaves you with around 96% of violence, even if you’re able to eliminate all people with mental disorders”. (BBC Future)

There is substantial research showing that the correlation between mental illness and violence is much lower than is commonly assumed and that mass shooters are not in their majority mentally ill. There is also substantial evidence that people with mental illness who do end up committing violent crimes (just as people who are not mentally ill but commit violent crimes) are also substance users, a factor which is a more reliable indication of violent behavior than the presence of mental illness. (Source: Psychology Today)

The stigmatisation of mental illness is a form of harm to innocent people, having them looked upon by society as potential perpetrators of violence. A further effect is that people in need of therapy will not seek it out, as they don’t want to be labelled as mentally ill – with all the prejudice that his entails.

It’s worrying then that people in power, like Bernie Sanders, continue to perpetuate this myth. Saying the same wrong thing over and over, day after day and year after year, won’t get America anywhere closer to managing their gun violence crisis and saving innocent lives.


Per Axbom

Per Axbom


Per Axbom is a Swedish communication theorist born in Liberia. For two decades he has educated digital professionals and helped organizations with digital usability and accessibility. Per makes tech safe and compassionate through design, coaching and teaching. You can hear his voice on UX Podcast.

Digital compassion book cover Per's recent handbook on managing ethics in tech, Digital compassion, is available to order from Amazon in Kindle format. Send an e-mail to Per for more options.

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But there seems to be evidence that some personality traits are changing, eg increased narcissistic personality traits: – – – Which may correlate with that Media Coverage of Mass Shooters Gives Them What They Want: “Media coverage of mass shooters rewards them by making them famous, and provides a clear incentive for future offenders to attack. Many of these at-risk individuals recognize that murdering large numbers of men, women, or children will guarantee them fame. They believe their names and faces will adorn newspapers, television, magazines, and the internet — and unfortunately, they are right (Langman, 2015;… Read more »