Mentally ill doesn't mean murderer

James Alan Fox

Septmber 24, 2013

A new Gallup poll taken after last week's tragedy at the Washington Navy Yard reveals that Americans fault the mental health system for mass shootings, even more than inadequate gun laws. Apparently, according to Joe Public, guns don't kill, psychotic people do. The NRA's Wayne LaPierre echoed these sentiments on Sunday: "If we leave these homicidal maniacs on the street ... they're going to kill," he said.

Notwithstanding a few high-profile defendants — such as James Holmes in Aurora, Colo., and Jared Loughner in Tucson, Ariz. — whose mental health issues are well-documented, no clear relationship between psychiatric diagnosis and mass murder has been established.

Mass murderers generally do not hear voices or suspect that they are being followed. More typically, they are miserable, but not to the point that they'd be hospitalized or lose their ability to purchase guns.

Based on a review of mass shootings in the past four years, the Mayors Against Illegal Guns found that mental health concerns were raised for only four of 56 perpetrators before the tragedy.

Rush to make a link

After mass killings, politicians often rally to address the needs of the mentally ill. "Given the connections between mass violence and mental illness," said Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., "improving mental health training for those who work in our schools, communities and (as) emergency personnel will give them the tools they need to identify warning signs and help individuals get treatment."

However, the presumed telltale indicators are generally not obvious until after the blood has spilled.

Adam Lanza in Newtown, Conn., for example, had mental health problems and withdrew to the sanctuary of the basement. Although his mother was increasingly concerned over his downward slide, neither she nor anyone else could have anticipated his violent rampage.

Unintended benefit

It would certainly be a fitting legacy to the tragedy of mass murder if mental health services were expanded and improved. However, greater access to treatment options might not necessarily reach the few individuals on the fringe who'd seek to turn a school, a theater or a military facility into their own personal war zone. With their tendency to externalize blame and consider themselves victims of injustice, mass killers demand fair treatment, not psychological treatment on demand.

The post-massacre effort to aid the mentally ill is the right thing to do, but for the wrong reason. For example, during a speech in Hartford, Conn., delivered months after the Newtown shooting, President Obama urged Congress to respond: "We have to ... help people struggling with mental health problems get the treatment they need before it is too late." We should help the mentally ill out of concern for their well-being, not just out of concern for the well-being of those they might kill.

We must resist the urge to equate mental illness with mass murder. Proposals to correct the flaws in the system exposed by mass murderers tend to stigmatize the vast majority of people who suffer mental illness. We might not only fail to prevent mass murder, but we will make it less likely that those most in need will seek appropriate treatment.

James Alan Fox, the Lipman Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University, is co-author of Extreme Killing and a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors.

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