• Dayna Sharp, LCSW

The Problem with Blaming Mental Health for Mass Shootings



Our society doesn’t speak much about mental health...There’s not a lot of discourse or debate on how mental health is funded, how we can increase access to mental health services, what mental health looks like and how we can reduce the risk of “mental illness” from a public health perspective. We don’t talk about it much...until there’s a tragedy. A hostage situation, a murder, a mass shooting. Suddenly everyone wants to talk about mental health.


The First Problem



We can’t just label any kind of despicable human behavior as mental illness. It only adds to an unrealistic stigma that adds to the barriers for folks who want to access mental healthcare. If we really want people to be able to access quality care, we need to de-stigmatize the struggle and asking For help. Equally important, the vast, vast majority of people who struggle with mental health are not violent. So if we hear about mental health and illness only in relation to violence, we paint a picture of mental health that is wildly inaccurate and shaming.


The Second Problem


Unless we’re opening a dialogue around how to change the funding structure of mental healthcare, were not really talking about mental health in a meaningful way. When the “mental illness” conversation comes up as an explanation as why people do unthinkable, terrible things, it is often a knee-jerk, superficial conversation. We’re not actually talking about making mental healthcare more accessible, and really—it doesn’t make a great case for funding mental health care if, as the story goes, it means treating violent killers. Let’s talk about mental health, but let’s do it in a realistic, solution-focused way!


The Third Problem


The mental health argument is often used as a topic change away from gun control. When we discuss mental heath in a superficial, stigmatizing manner and avoid talking about policies regarding assault weapons, we continue to allow these kinds of shootings to go on. And then we all live in some kind of fear—will there be a shooting in my neighborhood, my place of worship, my child’s school?? And that’s not good for our collective mental health.


The Fourth Problem


When we blame ”mental illness”, we are scapegoating an individual for a social problem. Of course, the Individual who shoots is responsible for their actions. But we can’t only explain their behavior on their individual qualities. Why do mass shootings occur so much more often in the US than other countries? Is there something about our culture, our policies that could support such action? If these shooters had grown up in Finland or Japan, would they have committed these crimes against humanity? Why or why not?


The bottom line is that it’s problematic, unrealistic and stigmatizing to link mental health with the perpetration of violence. And it very much misses the point that the only way mental health is related is that we are left in the wake of this violence...we all struggle with the fear, anxieties and powerlessness that we feel about safety of ourselves and our loved ones.