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Mass Shootings and Mental Illness – Is There A Link?

person pointing a gun

Mass Shootings and Mental Illness – Is There A Link?


Are mass shooters mentally ill? Are they simply angry with the world? Why leads people to mass shootings? Well...

On May 24, 2022, 18-year-old Salvador Ramos opened fire, killed 19 students and two teachers, and wounded 17 other people at Robb Elementary School, Uvalde, Texas.

Three people died a few weeks later, and 11 were injured in another mass shooting on a regular Saturday night in Philadelphia. There have been other mass shootings in Buffalo, Chattanooga, Summerton, and Phoenix. Is it anything new? Sadly, no.

There was one during a live performance in Las Vegas back in 2017. And, of course, others before that. There have been talks and assumptions that mass shooters may be mentally ill. It's logical that one would think that because there's hardly any sane reason why one would want to hurt or kill entirely heterogeneous strangers. So, why?

In most mass shooting cases, the assailants are either killed on the crime scene or are nowhere to be found, so we can't ask them.

Of course, some mass shooters who died on the scene were found to have been diagnosed with some mental illness before the gruesome incident.

But there are a few cases in which psychiatrists have tried to get into the minds of mass shooters that were caught.

For example, the Aurora theater shooting.

James Holmes killed 12 people and wounded 58 when he opened fire during the showing of "The Dark Knight Rises" in Aurora on July 20, 2012.

William H. Reid, one of the psychiatrists appointed to evaluate Holmes, said that "what led Holmes to open fire in a crowded movie theater was a one-of-a-kind vortex of his mental illness, his personality and his circumstances."

"A big part of it is, it's hidden in Holmes' mind, and he can't see it either," said Reid.

The psychiatrist noted Holmes' mental illness and how his personality shaped his awkward interactions with people as some key factors that led him to homicide.

But this is actually just one out of many.


What Studies Show

To find out why mass shooters act as they do, Dr. Ira Glick led some researchers to study 35 mass shooting cases in the US dated between 1982 and 2019.

The cases involved shooters who were caught and were brought to trial. Of the 35 mass shooters, medical evidence showed that 28 have mental illness diagnoses. Eighteen had schizophrenia, and the rest had other mental disorders, including bipolar and substance abuse disorders.

Most interestingly, none of the 28 mass shooters received treatment or medication for their mental illness before their crimes.

The researchers went on to study 20 other mass shooters who died at the crime scene. Out of these, 8 had schizophrenia, 7 had other mental disorders, while 5 had unknown diagnoses. Again, none was receiving treatment leading up to their mass shooting.

Reports suggest that up to 60% of mass shooters in the US since 1970 displayed symptoms of mental illness before committing the crimes.


What Can We Do Now?

Indeed, we cannot discount that mental illness has a role to play in the occurrence of unreasonable mass shootings. People with mental disorders go through so much suffering and battle within themselves, and perhaps, that's their means of showing the world how much frustration and despair they're in.

But at the same time, we should understand that mentally ill people are not always violent. In fact, we should reduce the stigma around mental illness. Perhaps, that could help these embattled individuals feel more included and recognized, encouraging them to seek help. Not all mass shooters are mentally ill, and not every mentally ill person will shoot at people.

Also, it could be better if people with mental illness do not have guns, not just because of others but to protect themselves. According to Andrew Cuomo, "They could hurt themselves, they could hurt other people."

People with violent tendencies should not have access to weapons as they could harm themselves and others.

Finally, we should note that mental illness and mass shootings are typically more complicated than they seem, and we can only hope to garner more insight and find ways to reduce them in the future.

Satu H. Woodland, PMHCNS-BC, APRN Satu H. Woodland, PMHCNS-BC, APRN Satu Woodland is owner and clinician of Hope Mental Health, an integrative mental health practice located at Bown Crossing in Boise, Idaho. She sees children, adolescents, and adults.  Ms. Woodland with her background in nursing, prefers a holistic and integrative approach to mental health care that addresses the mind and body together. While Ms. Woodland provides medication management services in all her patients, she believes in long-lasting solutions that include a number of psychotherapies, namely cognitive behavioral therapy, exposure and response prevention therapy, attention to lifestyle, evidenced based alternative psychiatric care and spirituality. If you’d like to gain control over your mental health issues, call Hope Mental Health at 208-918-0958, or use the online scheduling tool to set up an initial consultation.

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