The problem with blaming mass shootings on mental illness

Looking closely at all of the factors involved in violent crimes, including mass shootings, is certainly better than the automatic liberal retreat to gun control. And although mental illness is a factor in many violent crimes, most people suffering from mental illness have no more propensity to violence than the average person.

That means increasing treatment for mental illness won’t necessarily prevent mass shootings, but in many cases it will make those suffering from mental illness more dependent on government programs.

Scholarship on this issue indicates that although mental illness is a risk factor for violence, that risk is about the same as in the general population. Jeffrey Swanson, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University, found that the “risk of violent behavior increased with the number of psychiatric diagnoses.” However, if we remove other risk factors like substance abuse, poverty, and unemployment, the risk for violent behavior among the mentally ill drops to 2 percent—the same as the general population.

If people with mental illness generally are not extraordinarily violent, but a significant portion of the people who commit violent acts do suffer from mental illness, then our public policies—and our debates about how to respond to mass shootings—should accurately reflect both sides of this equation. So what should be the focus and the goal of mental health policy?